Inter Milan icon Hernan Crespo on his River Plate love affair and power of Club World Cup

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Hernan Crespo packed a lot into his playing career.

He had nearly all you could want from a centre forward. Expert in the air, ruthless off both feet and a selfless foil for iconic team-mates such as Ronaldo, Paolo Maldini, Christian Vieri and Kaka.

There were more than 300 goals across 19 years as a professional at boyhood club River Plate, Parma, Lazio (in world-record fashion courtesy of July 2000’s €56 million deal), both AC and Inter Milan, Chelsea and Genoa.

His 35 strikes from 65 internationals for Argentina still makes him their fourth-highest scorer. Only Manchester City poacher Sergio Aguero, iconic peer Gabriel Batistuta and the peerless Lionel Messi are ahead of him – not bad company to keep.

Even when on the wrong side of history, the now 43-year-old can count a predatory brace in 2004/05’s Champions League final. A fact that is often ignored amid emotive flashbacks of the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ when Milan’s 3-0 half-time lead famously evaporated against Liverpool in one of football’s great clashes.

Among all this sterling achievement, however, there is one source of regret.

As a 20-year-old of rare promise, he would, decisively, score twice in June 1996’s second leg and ensure River defeated Colombia’s Junior to claim the cherished Copa Libertadores. But by the time that November’s 1-0 reversal to Juventus in the Intercontinental Cup – a precursor to the current global club tournament – came around, his triumphant European adventure was under way at Parma.

When asked by Sport360 at Wednesday’s event to promote next month’s 2018 Club World Cup in the UAE whether he still rues this gap in his CV, he replies: “Yes. I joined Parma in August 1996, so now I use this opportunity to come here [for the 2018 Club World Cup].

“In 1996, we had won the Copa Libertadores but I never reached the Intercontinental Cup. This is because I was sold to Parma and I watched on television, suffering so much.

“But, it is never too late to come into this event.”

The reason why Crespo has found himself in the Emirates is illuminating.

South America’s entrant for the CWC is still to be decided, even though it runs from December 12-22. This is after the epochal Copa showdown between eternal Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate descended into infamy last weekend.

An attack on the former’s team bus by supporters of the latter caused the abortive second leg to be, repeatedly, postponed. Shameful headlines across the world followed, ahead of a Superclasico decider on neutral soil – the UAE has been tipped as one of many potential venues – on December 8 or 9.

River icon Crespo and Boca stalwart Nicolas Burdisso crossed Buenos Aires’ great divide this midweek at Al Ain’s resplendent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. They came together to preach the unifying role that the sport can have at its best.

“I want to talk about what happened ahead of the final between River Plate and Boca Juniors,” Crespo said at a press conference. “I would like to say as players we are very disappointed with what happened.

“We know there is a history of rivalry between the two sides, but the fans have to refrain from such practices.”

He added: “Just imagine, though, if people used the emotion that they have for football in a positive way, to help shape society.”

For River to build on the 2-2 draw from the first leg, head coach Marcelo Gallardo will be central.

Nicolas Burdisso (l) and Hernan Crespo (r) in Al Ain.

Nicolas Burdisso (l) and Hernan Crespo (r) in Al Ain.

Crespo’s supply line for club and country, as a renowned playmaker, is now after a ninth title in four wildly successful years in the El Monumental-dugout.

Did he expect El Muneco (The Doll) to be such a success?

“Yes, because he was very intelligence,” Crespo answers. “As a player, he was so intelligent on the pitch and he understood everything.

“He doesn’t surprise me. He has put River Plate on another level, maybe they now have the best XI in their history.

“Everything is thanks to Gallardo. He’s a great, great manager.

“Everybody knows him in South America, because he won a lot of trophies. Maybe in Europe, not everyone knows him.

“I think it is a good opportunity to be part of this event, to get to know all the players and managers.”

Crespo first donned the hallowed red sash of River Plate as a child, prior to netting 36 times in 84 run-outs for the first team from 1993-96.

This relationship has left an indelible mark on his life.

He says: “I grew up in River Plate. I began playing there at seven-years old – it was 14 years of my life.

“It is not easy to explain. This is because it is about feelings, about sensations.

“Explaining this is very difficult. But I am always a River Plate fan.”

A scan of Crespo’s social media showcases his status as globetrotting promoter of the sport since his November 2012 retirement.

But for all the sun-kissed charity matches with the likes of Ronaldinho, Ryan Giggs and Alessandro Del Piero, a desire to return to the top end remains acute.

A spell from June 2017-January 2018 as vice-president to new majority shareholder at Parma, Jiang Lizhang, was influential in the club’s return to Serie A.

There was also a tortured first – and so far only – head-coach posting at Serie B-strugglers Modena from June 2015-March 2016.

This strained experience, however, could never diminish Crespo’s passion.

He says: “I have been a coach and I finished helping Parma as an assistant to the president, in the last two seasons to return to Serie A.

“Now, I want to come back to being a coach. This is what I really love.

“I think in a few days I can come back to the pitch and start to be a coach again.”

The 2018 CWC will bring together six continental champions – holders Real Madrid, Asia’s Kashima Antlers, Africa’s Esperance de Tunis, Central America’s Guadalajara, Oceania’s Team Wellington plus the eventual South American participant – and host team Al Ain.

Tickets are still available at www.fifa.com/clubworldcup/, including ones beginning at Dh25 for the first three matches at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium.

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