South American superstars wind down on home soil
I have often mentioned the single greatest pleasure of covering South American football -spotting a future superstar on the way up, spying on the early steps of someone with the talent to become a household name all over the world.
Another pleasure comes from following some of those big names at the end of their playing days, when they come back from Europe to wind down their careers.
One of the fascinating aspects here is that they can fit into so many different categories.
One is exemplified by Juan Sebastian Veron, who came back from Italy when still at the height of his powers, motivated by a genuine love for Estudiantes and a burning ambition to bring the glory days back to the club where he first started - and where his father shone so brightly in the late 1960s.
Football legends Romario and Ronaldo both finished their playing careers in Brazil. Photo: Getty
Mission accomplished. Veron junior led Estudiantes to their third Copa Libertadors title in 2009, and was twice chosen as the South American continent's player of the year.
Injuries meant that he had meant to retire last month, but a campaign by his team-mates forced a rethink. He will carry his battered body through one more campaign.
Romario is a different case. When he returned to Brazil at the start of 1995 he had just won the World Cup and been chosen as FIFA Player of the Year.
His ambitions fulfilled, he left Barcelona to join Flamengo in a bid to escape the routine of a professional athlete.
Back in Rio he could use his prestige to do as he pleased. Football was not a priority - until his ego was bruised by the explosive rise of Ronaldo at Barcelona in the last few months of 1996.
At the start of the following year Romario had got himself in shape and was on fire once more.
He had flipped the switch that says 'genius.' But the next few years were an illustration of the sad fact that man is inevitably fated to lose the battle against time.
Again and again Romario's body broke down when he needed it most. He missed the 1998 World Cup - and the knock out stages of the 2001 Libertadores - and became an accumulator of largely irrelevant goals.
In the contemporary Flamengo team, Ronaldinho is perhaps a similar case. It is too early for any definitive conclusions to be drawn about his time back in Brazil - this year's Libertadores campaign could be crucial in determining how he will be judged.
At times he waddles around with the air of an ex-player in a charity match. At others he inspires the hope that, at 31, the great days might not be entirely behind him.
But at least he scaled the mountain - unlike another category of returning veterans; those who never fulfilled the hopes they once inspired.
Uruguay has plenty of those. Before the recent resurgence of the sky blues, there were a few false dawns for Uruguayan football.
One came in the late 90s. They finished second in the 1997 World Youth Cup in Malaysia - a staggering percentage of the country's population turned out to greet the squad on their return home.
Two years later many of these players were promoted to the experimental line-up taken to the Copa America in Paraguay, where they caused a shock by reaching the final. The good old days of Uruguayan football seemed within reach once more.
Instead, the country had to wait a little bit longer, until Oscar Washington Tabarez took over in 2006 and implanted his long-term project.
That late 90s generation made the 2002 World Cup, but were knocked out in the first round and then missed out on 2006.
And it was not only with their country that they disappointed. Few made the expected impact at club level, but there is still time for some of them to make their mark.
Like Fabian Carini, for example. A graduate of the late 90s Under-20s sides and the 1999 Copa America, he was Uruguay's first-choice keeper while still a teenager.
Combining the nerves of a veteran with the reflexes of youth, he looked set to be one of the world's best. It never happened.
There were long spells on the bench or in the stands with Juventus and Inter Milan, the occasional loan here and there, a brief, unsuccessful spell in Brazil before going back to Uruguay to join Penarol, where he watched last year's run to the final of the Libertadores from the bench.
Now he is first choice and showed his value last Thursday at home to Caracas of Venezuela in the first leg of the 2012 Libertadores qualifying round.
Away goals are gold dust in this competition. It was a big moment, then, with almost half-an-hour gone and the game still scoreless, when Caracas won a penalty.
Captain Edgar Jimenez struck hard and true, but Carini plunged right to make the save and change the game.
Within 10 minutes Penarol were two goals up. Coach Gregorio Perez has constructed a bold side, attacking with a pair of wide strikers - and burly Marcelo Zalayeta through the middle.
A team-mate of Carini's in the 1999 Copa America, Zalayeta was one of Uruguay's great hopes. Like the keeper, though, the centre forward suffered in Italy from a loss of momentum brought about by too much time on the bench and too many loan spells.
On his day, though, he is still a handful for any defence and pounced with speed belying his 33 years to stroke home Penarol's second goal.
The final score was 4-0, a splendid margin to take north for Thursday's second leg. The last goal was fired in by right winger Fabian Estoyanoff. At 29, he does not quite belong to the generation of Carini and Zalayeta but he is part of the same process.
Unleashed as an 18-year-old in the 2001 Copa America, his lithe dribbling made a huge impression. For a while he played the role of supersub in the national team. But it never went further.
He bounced around Spain from club to club, and more recently spent time in Greece, without ever really delivering on that youthful promise.
Estoyanoff celebrated his strike against Caracas running across to a pitch-side payphone and talking into the receiver.
It cost him a yellow card, a price well worth paying to communicate his message - that there are still some new chapters to be written by Penarol's old timers.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) Great to see Alvaro "El Chino" Recoba having an Indian summer back in his homeland of Uruguay. Why do you think he never really made a impact at the highest level in Europe? Without question he is one of most (if not the most) naturally gifted players I have ever seen. Attitude? Italian coaches?
A) If Penarol have their golden oldies, Nacional have Alvaro Recoba. He was certainly highly valued in Italy. Inter Milan's president loved him and he was one of the best-paid players in the league. I tend to think his problem has been more psychological than anything else. Not only for club but also for country you could never really rely on him to come good when the team needed it most - and that is the sign of the truly great player. It will be fascinating to see how he goes in this year's Libertadores. In Marcelo Gallardo he has a young coach who should understand him and the position he plays. Bearing in mind his extraordinary talent, it would be nice to see him make an impact.
Q) Brazil's 1958 side is often reported as one of the best, with Pele's breakthrough, and Garrincha and so on.
Of course the 1970 side is regarded as one of the best sides in football history.
But I wonder how the 1962 winners are seen.
To me they seem like "the forgotten side". Is this mostly because of Pele's injury in the opening phase of the tournament?
A) I think that had he not been injured in the second game, then 1962 could have been what 86 was to Maradona. If you look at the goal he scored in the opener against Mexico then you are seeing a football machine at the peak of its powers.
The problem that 62 has, apart from Pele's injury, is that it is basically the same side as 1958, only four years older and not as good. I think it's the oldest team to win a World Cup, with several players who were on the downward slope. It is remembered most for the individual brilliance of Garrincha, coming off the right wing in his team's moment of need and displaying the full range of his genius.
Before signing off for the week, I want to make a quick reference to an amazing charity feat currently being performed by someone I was at school with. I haven't seen Matthew Loddy in over 30 years, but news has reached me that he is running 100 marathons in 100 days, culminating in the London marathon, in a bid to raise money for charity, chiefly the Teenage Cancer Trust.
I remember him as the best footballer I grew up with and recall that he had hopes of a professional career. That natural athleticism will serve him well as he forces himself over the pain barrier day after day. He's past the 15-mark now, his body is clearly suffering and he and his cause need all the help they can get. His daily blog, information on the charities and how to donate can be found at www.frameworkfoundation.co.uk.