On June 7, when England face favourites Argentina in the biggest match of the World Cup’s group phase, you can bet your last yen that David Beckham’s reacquaintance with Diego Simeone will dominate the headlines.
The inspirational Manchester United midfielder will face the Argentinian four years after he was sent off for a silly kick as England crashed out of France 98.
However, anyone searching for the most intense personal battle in the Sapporo encounter should look no further than the intriguing match-up between England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and Beckham’s Old Trafford team-mate, Juan Sebastian Veron.
No-one knows of the threat posed by ‘La Brujita’ - ‘the little witch’ - better than Eriksson, because the Swede signed Veron twice, for both Sampdoria and Lazio.
Now marshalling United’s midfield in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season as manager, the 26-year-old’s terrier-like tackling, intelligent distribution and forward bursts are sure to be of great concern to his former Serie A boss.
Veron, son of former Argentina striker Juan Ramon Veron, started out with his father’s old club Estudiantes de la Plata, before making his name with Boca Juniors after a March 1996 transfer.
He took his international bow against Poland that June and Eriksson almost immediately snapped him up for Sampdoria, where he made 61 club appearances and starred for his country in the 1998 World Cup.
The midfielder’s impressive performances in France prompted Parma to splash out £15million for him but after just one season, he teamed up with Eriksson again, in an £18.1million mega-deal with wages of £48,000 a week.
Veron became the driving force as Lazio captured the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Italian Super Cup.
However, in February 2001, the player, his club and Italian football as a whole was rocked by the fake passport scandal.
Veron was charged with providing false papers to obtain a European Union passport but eventually acquitted by the Italian Football Federation’s disciplinary commission amid reports of a £30million bid from Real Madrid and interest from Old Trafford.
On July 12, he signed for United for £28.1million, on a five-year contract.
Eriksson, a regular at top matches around the country, has had plenty of opportunities to remind himself of Veron’s talent and the boss will now sit down with England captain Beckham to discuss the best tactics to nullify Veron. He will be a key figure for Marcelo Bielsa’s side, who breezed through the South American qualifying league, finishing 12 points clear of second-placed Ecuador.
Argentina suffered a shock second-round exit at the hands of Romania in USA 94 and reached the quarter-finals at France 98, before losing to Holland.
The players know 2002 is their opportunity to improve on previous showings and with one of Eriksson’s favourite midfielders at the helm, the South Americans are 4-1 favourites to lift the trophy in Yokohama on June 30.
And if Argentina do reach the World Cup final, expect Eriksson to be there, coolly concealing his admiration for Argentina’s little witch.