Back in July 2001, Juan Sebastian Veron had been a Manchester United player for several days before anyone even got a glimpse of him.
The press camped out eagerly at the airports and fans staked out United's Carrington training ground and even Old Trafford, all hoping to catch sight of the $56 million arrival from Lazio. But club staff, presumably under the orders of manager Sir Alex Ferguson, kept Veron well out of public view. No problem, said the fans, we will see plenty of him during the season.
The problem was that what they did see of him, they wished they hadn't.
Veron was a huge bust in the Premiership, failing to justify either his big reputation or his monstrous price tag. His transfer caused many to call into question whether Ferguson, one of the greatest talent-identifiers in soccer history, had lost his touch.
Now, of course, none of this means that Veron would have been a failure had his mooted move to Major League Soccer heavyweights D.C. United gone through this week instead of collapsing at the last minute. Even at the age of 32, the Argentina international has lost little of his ability and remains an incredibly talented and skillful midfielder.
Yet his no-show in the nation's capital, preferring to remain with Estudiantes in his homeland, need not be seen as a disaster by D.C. fans.
Tom Soehn's team is built around collective spirit, and while getting its hands on a designated player for the first time would have boosted the club's profile and gathered international headlines, the effect on the field may have been somewhat less than spectacular.
Veron flopped in England mainly because he was seized by panic every time he was harried or hustled in midfield. Time on the ball is not a luxury that anyone, especially a Manchester United player, is afforded in the EPL. He was more skilled than virtually all the players he came up against, but he simply lost the capacity for rational thought when confronted with terrier-like opposition.
In the Champions League, where the tempo of the game is played at something closer to the Serie A style he excelled in with Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio, Veron performed well, scoring some key goals and turning in several confident performances. Obviously, MLS is a significant step down from the Premiership or other top European leagues in terms of overall skill level. However, the pace is high and most of the players in the league are good athletes.
Veron would not have been given room to breathe and would have been closed down at every opportunity. His general standards would have enabled him to function to a good level, but perhaps not one worth D.C. United's reported planned investment of more than $1 million per season.
Maybe, just maybe, United has saved itself some trouble – and plenty of money – by Veron's last-minute U-turn.
The important question now is where D.C. United goes from here. Early suggestions indicate it may look elsewhere in South America for another high-profile player. How quickly, and how urgently, the club chases a designated or senior international player will give an important insight into the current mindset of president Kevin Payne and his organization.
Are they happy being perhaps the most-respected club in MLS, with a loyal and vocal fan-base and an effective, consistent, well-drilled team?
Or do they want to rival the Los Angeles Galaxy in the fame game and spread their message to a wider audience?
The former approach would surely be the smarter, given the club's excellent form during the regular season, which saw them finish atop the Eastern Conference before being bundled out of the playoffs by their nemesis, the Chicago Fire.
But as MLS grows, so do the temptations. Resisting them requires nerve just as steely as that required from the players on the pitch.
- Juan Sebastian Veron
- Manchester United