Saturday, November 7, 2009

Enjoy Messi, Pato and Kaká while you can… Europe’s only got them on loan

The economics of the game in South America demand that the region's best players spend the prime of their careers in Europe.

Fans of even the most prestigious clubs such as Boca Juniors and Flamengo must savour watching their young prospects because as soon as they demonstrate an ounce of class they will be snapped up and shipped out.

In extreme examples such as the Da Silva twins at Manchester United and Lionel Messi of Barcelona the fans of Fluminense and Newell's Old Boys never even got to see the players make their first team debut. Not yet anyway...

Once the cream of South America hit their autumn years and the blood and thunder of Europe’s top leagues becomes too much for their aging legs there is always one place willing to take them.

It is therefore possible to catch some of the finest players of their generation seeing out their careers in their native South America. More often than not these players will return to the club where they first made their name and further endear themselves to the fans who supported them in the beginning.

The players below have won a wealth of cups with club and country as well as scooping top individual honours throughout their careers. After calling time on their respective European adventures they are currently seeing out their playing days back home.

Name: Juan Sebastián Verón

Age: 34

Nationality: Argentina (65 caps, 9 goals)

Current Club: Estudiantes de La Plata (ARG)

Previous Clubs: Inter Milan (ITA), Chelsea (ENG), Manchester United (ENG), Lazio (ITA), Parma (ITA), Sampdoria (ITA), Boca Juniors (ARG), Estudiantes de La Plata (ARG)

Great things were expected from Juan Sebastián Verón as soon as he made his debut for Estudiantes over 15 years ago. It was assumed that he must be a great a player as he was the eldest son Juan Ramón Verón who won three Argentine titles and three Copa Libertadores with Estudiantes in the late 60s.

The crowning glory Verón senior’s career was netting with his head against Manchester United in 1968 at Old Trafford. The goal secured the Intercontinental Cup for Estudiantes against Busby’s European Cup winning team of Best, Law and Charlton et al.

Despite the family connection to Estudiantes Juan Sebastián Verón left the club to join Boca Juniors a few seasons after making his debut. While at La Bombonera Verón formed an impressive partnership with perhaps the Godfather of all returning heroes Diego Maradona.

During his single season with Boca Verón was selected for the national team and with this breakthrough came interest from the then all conquering Serie A of Italy.

Spells at Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio cluttered the Argentine’s mantelpiece as he collected winners medals for the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup, European Super Cup, Scudetto, Coppa Italia again and Supercoppa Italiana.

His move to the English Premier League is generally viewed as a fallow time for the player but his sheer talent shone at times and he played his part in Manchester United's 2003 title.

Verón's signing for Chelsea made him the most expensive footballer in the world as his cumulative transfer fees hit £77 million. Throughout Verón’s time in Europe he helped out Estudiantes financially and stumped up the cash to revamp their training facilities.

The midfielder did not hit it off at Stamford Bridge but was soon back prospering in Italy. While at Inter Milan Verón won the Coppa Italia twice and got his hands on a second Scudetto medal after Juventus’ 2006 title was stripped.

Verón took the decision to head back to Argentina and despite overtures from Boca Juniors and River Plate he signed for his hometown club.

In his first season back he steered Estudiantes to the 2006 Apertura title but then suffered a series of injuries and it was feared that his career was coming to an end.

Verón returned better than ever however and was named South American Footballer of the Year in 2008 before going on to captain Estudiantes to victory in the 2009 Copa Libertadores.

The player is central to Diego Maradona's plans for the South Africa 2010 and the tournament will be La Brujita’s third World Cup. Verón’s 35 yard screamer against Banfield earlier this week shows that the player still has plenty of quality left in the tank.

Name: Nolberto Solano

Age: 34

Nationality: Peru (95 caps, 20 goals)

Current Club: Universitario de Deportes (PER)

Previous Clubs: Larissa (GRE), West Ham United (ENG), Newcastle United (ENG), Aston Villa (ENG), Boca Juniors (ARG), Sporting Cristal (PER), Deportivo Municipal (PER)

Diminutive wideman Nolberto Solano first came to prominence in his homeland as part of the talented Sporting Cristal team which reached the final of the Copa Libertadores in 1997.

Sporting Cristal became only the second Peruvian team to reach a Copa Libertadores’ final but narrowly missed out to Cruzeiro as a single goal over the two legs secured victory for the Brazilians.

Prior to reaching the historic final Solano along with the likes of Roberto Palacios, Flavio Maestri, Julinho and Jorge Soto had won three Peruvian league titles on the bounce.

After starring in the Copa Libertadores Solano was brought by Boca Juniors who had recently sold midfielder Juan Sebastián Verón. Playing alongside Diego Maradona Solano shone at La Bombonera and was soon on the move again as Newcastle United came knocking.

Spectacular goals such as his effort against 1860 München quickly endeared him to fans of the Magpies. He rewarded the fans for their support with sparkling performances and almost delivered some much sought silverware to the club but had to make to with a FA Cup runners-up medal after Newcastle were defeated by Manchester United's treble team of 1999.

Solano went on to join Aston Villa in 2004 and it didn’t take long for the Peruvian to become a crowd favourite in the Holt End as well as the Gallowgate. Despite being with The Villains for just 18 months he did the treble at the club's Player of the Year awards when he got the votes of the supporters, the local press and his teammates.

His return to Newcastle United coincided with the arrival of Michael Owen in the North-East. Fans didn't hide their excitement at the return of the Peruvian by chanting his name at Owen's unveiling.

Solano further cemented his cult status with performances of his Salsa trio The Geordie Latinos, Nobby providing trumpet for the group.

Solano's final stop on his English adventure was West Ham United and during his one season in East London he won over the Hammers’ faithful as well as getting rapturous receptions when he played against Newcastle and Villa.

A switch to Greece didn't work out for the player and in August 2008 Solano headed back to Peru signing for Universitario de Deportes.

Nothing comes easy in Peruvian football at the moment and Solano retired from the international scene after his country finished bottom of the South American qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup.

Solano who will turn 35-years-old next month is just shy of 100 caps and regarded as one of his country’s greatest players of all time.

Solano has said that he hopes to finally see out his career at Sport Boys, a lower league team hailing from his home city of Callao. The player would also like to manager his country at the World Cup after never appearing in the competition as a player.

Name: Ronaldo

Age: 33

Nationality: Brazil (97 caps, 62 goals)

Current Club: Corinthians (BRA)

Previous Clubs: AC Milan (ITA), Real Madrid (ESP), Inter Milan (ITA), Barcelona (ESP), PSV (HOL), Cruzeiro (BRA)

From the humblest of beginnings Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima rose to become the best know face in football and scoop nearly every honour going in the game.

Tipped for stardom while playing youth football Ronaldo was snapped up by Brazilian first division outfit Cruzeiro. In his one and only season with the club the 17-year-old netted 12 times in just 14 games, playing his part Cruzeiro's Copa do Brasil triumph in 1993.

After appearing as an unused substitute in Brazil's 1994 World Cup triumph scouts brought him to the attention of PSV Eindhoven and O Fenômeno left his homeland for Europe while still a teenager. His found no problem carrying on his goalscoring antics in Holland and maintained a strike rate of just under a goal a game.

After two seasons with PSV he packed his Dutch Cup winners' medal and headed off to Camp Nou. In his single season with Barcelona Ronaldo bagged over 40 goals, including the best strike of his career against Compostela, and helped the side to victory in the Cup Winners' Cup, Copa del Reya and Supercopa de España.

Ronaldo then switched Camp Nou for the San Siro and joined Inter Milan for a world record fee. The Italians were immediately rewarded for their investment as the Brazilian's goals helped them towards the UEFA Cup title in his first season.

At the World Cup in France the following summer he brought his club form onto the international stage and helped Brazil towards a place in the final against hosts France. However the night before the biggest game of his career so far Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit and although he played in Brazil's 3-0 defeat it was clear the player was well off the pace.

The following season saw the beginning of the player’s knee injury problems and Ronaldo missed large chunks of the next three Serie A seasons. He did regain his fitness however in time to travel with Brazil to the Far East for the 2002 World Cup.

In his second appearance in a World Cup final O Fenômeno showed his true colours as he scored the only goals of the game as Brazil won their fifth World Cup with a 2-0 victory over Germany.

With his exploits in South Korea and Japan Ronaldo saw his stock rise to new levels and he went back to Spain to join Florentino Pérez’s Galácticos project at the Bernabéu. Yet another successful debut season followed with Real Madrid winning the La Liga, Intercontinental Cup and Spanish Super Cup.

Unfortunately for the player and fans of Real Madrid more injury problems were just around the corner and Ronaldo was in and out of the team for the next four years. He was fit enough however to represent Brazil at the 2006 World Cup where he become the tournament's all-time record goalscorer with his 15th goal in finals against Ghana.

After falling out of favour with Fabio Capello at Real Madrid he moved back to the San Siro, this time to wear the red and black of AC Milan. In 18 months with the Rossoneri the Brazilian managed just 20 games but still netted just under a goal every other game even against the watertight defences of Serie A.

Speculation was rife that Ronaldo would retire after being released by AC Milan but on returning to Brazil he trained with Flamengo, the club he had supported as a boy. As a player who has turned out for both sides in Milan as well as Barcelona and Real Madrid it should have come as no surprise the player eventually agreed terms with Flamengo's great rivals Corinthians.

Soon Ronaldo turned the goal tap on once more and the three time FIFA World Player of the Year won the Campeonato Paulista with 10 goals in 14 games. The player is also in double figures in this year's Brazilian top flight and is a firm favourite with supporters at his new club.

Current Brazil coach Dunga has showed no inclination to recall Ronaldo since taking the job but with O Fenômeno looking trim and banging them in there may still be a place on the plane yet for the country's second highest ever goalscorer.

Name: Juan Román Riquelme

Age: 31

Nationality: Argentina (60 caps, 19 goals)

Current Club: Boca Juniors (ARG)

Previous Clubs: Villarreal (ESP), Barcelona (ESP), Boca Juniors (ARG)

Juan Román Riquelme followed in the footsteps of his boyhood hero Diego Maradona by making an early switch in his career from Argentinos Juniors to Boca Juniors.

In fact the player came to La Bombonera to fill Maradona's vacant number 10 shirt after the 1986 World Cup star retired in 1997. Within two weeks off making his debut Riquelme opened his scoring account for Boca and kicked off a love affair with all those who follow the team in blue and yellow.

Riquelme came into the Boca side already a complete footballer and further demonstrated his class in Argentina's under-20 World Cup win.

Riquelme stayed put for seven seasons and played a key role in the most successful period in the club’s history. With Carlos Bianchi managing the team and Riquelme running things on the pitch Boca won three Argentine titles between 1998 and 2000.

Continental wide success came with Boca winning the Copa Libertadores at the turn of millennium and then retaining the trophy the next year.

In winning the Intercontinental Cup in 2000 with a 2-1 victory over a Real Madrid side boasting Roberto Carlos, Luís Figo and Raúl in their pomp this Boca team was arguably the greatest the club ever had.

It was understood that Riquelme was central to this team as he dictated the play from the middle of the park. This talent did not go unnoticed and again he trod the path which had previously been beaten down by Maradona and left Boca to join Barcelona.

As with El Diego the player did not enjoy the best of times at Camp Nou. Barcelona’s manager Louis van Gaal simply did not rate Riquelme and rarely started him in his natural position.

With his time on the pitch restricted Riquelme requested to leave the club at the end his first season and a compromise was reached when he was loaned to Villareal. He was much more at home at El Madrigal, especially when Chilean Manuel Pellegrini was in charge and the side was jam packed with fellow South Americans.

The Argentine received the Don Balón Award when he was acknowledged as La Liga's Foreign Player of the Year. With the honour Riquelme joined a prestigious list of previous winners including Johan Cruyff, Hristo Stoitchkov and Zinedine Zidane.

His most successful season with El Submarino Amarillo came as the player starred in club’s run to the semi-finals of 2005/06 edition of the Champions League. After dumping out Manchester United and Inter Milan, Riquelme missed the decisive penalty against Arsenal to put the Londoners through to the final at Villareal’s expense.

Worldwide acclaim for the talented Argentine came after his slick performances made his country look unstoppable in the early rounds of the 2006 World Cup. Argentina eventually lost in quarter-finals to hosts Germany after Riquelme was substituted with his team a goal up.

The following season amongst growing tension between the player, his manager and the club’s board Riquelme was loaned back to Boca. The midfielder hit the ground running as a bunch of goals helped his old club to the 2007 Copa Libertadores title. In claiming his third winners' medal in South America’s top club competition Riquelme was voted the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

The player celebrated breaking his contract with Villareal and official singing for Boca a second time with league triumph in the 2008 Apertura.

In recent times the player has had a well documented falling out with Argentina’s manager Diego Maradona. It looks very likely that the global audience will be denied another look at the skills of Riquelme but fans of Boca hope the self imposed exile from international football will give the player a few more precious minutes on the pitch at La Bombonera.

Copyright © Tim Sturtridge & Soccerphile.com

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