To mark the dawn of a new decade, Hernan Crespo returned to a sanctuary of old — a place that provides some semblance of anonymity. But a place where serenity will forever be mixed with sorrow.
‘I spent New Year at London Bridge with the fireworks and my three daughters,’ Crespo tells Sportsmail from his home in Buenos Aires.
‘It’s hard for me. Wherever I go, my popularity makes it difficult being among people. But London allows it. At midnight the fireworks started and it was really beautiful to be part of all that.’
Hernan Crespo is currently manager of Buenos Aires outfit Defensa y Justicia in Argentina
Back in 2003, Crespo signed for Chelsea at the start of the Roman Abramovich era. But after one season under Claudio Ranieri, the Argentine striker returned to Italy and, while on loan at AC Milan, his dreams of winning the Champions League were dashed by six minutes of mayhem in Istanbul. ‘There is no logical explanation,’ he reflects. ‘It was simply football.’
In England, more profound heartache. While at Chelsea, Crespo lived in Belgravia with his wife Alessia and their young daughter. His time in England would end with the Premier League title. But also devastation after he and Alessia lost a baby. Twice.
‘The hurt was so great,’ the 45-year-old remembers. ‘I would say, “Why?” But it’s life.’
He and Alessia have since separated but on his recent trip to London, Crespo took his three daughters back to that house and showed them ‘everything we experienced in that period, where it was difficult but I was also happy’.
One day, Crespo hopes, these shores will be home once more.
After retiring in 2012, he headed for the dugout. Short spells at Modena (Serie B) and Banfield (Argentina) didn’t work out but in January he was appointed boss at Buenos Aires outfit Defensa y Justicia.
Crespo has followed Leeds’ successful push for Premier League promotion under his Argentine compatriot Marcelo Bielsa (centre) with interest
‘I was very happy playing in England, going to training, very happy with the fans,’ he says. ‘That is why today as a manager I would like to be able to re-live that. I admire the Premier League and even the Championship, too.’
Crespo played under Marcelo Bielsa for Argentina and has followed Leeds’ successful push for promotion with interest. Crespo’s English is excellent but during this hour on Zoom, he — like Bielsa — enjoys the comfort of an interpreter.
Though Bielsa left as Argentina boss in 2004, he and Crespo had a long-running fall-out that took until 2018 to heal fully. That August, before Leeds faced Norwich, Bielsa suddenly — and publicly — apologised to Crespo for once lying to him.
‘Your apologies made me rewind through 14 years of pain I still have inside,’ Crespo wrote in response. ‘I accept your apology.’
As a player, Crespo won nine major trophies in three countries. At international level, he earned 64 caps and scored 35 goals.
The pair, pictured ahead of the 2002 World Cup, were involved in a long running feud which only ended in 2018 when the current Leeds manager apologised to Crespo for lying to him
He was at one time the world’s most expensive player and worked under some of the game’s great thinkers — Bielsa, Carlo Ancelotti at AC Milan and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea after returning to Stamford Bridge, and later at Inter Milan.
After retiring, he studied his former managers. ‘Being a coach is beautiful,’ he says.
From Bielsa he took lessons in improving individuals. Ancelotti taught him the value of ‘human leadership’.
‘Being beside Jose at Chelsea and Inter, I learned that the manager is 360 degrees,’ he continues. ‘How to deal with journalists, doctors, players, backroom staff, the atmosphere, fans, with everything… these three opened up my mind to certain things.’
He also has his own experiences to call on.
‘I admired Marco Van Basten, Romario but I couldn’t be Van Basten or Romario, I had to be Hernan Crespo.’ And that’s his approach to management. ‘I will simply try to put my name on the map without imitating anyone.’
He adds: ‘If you manage to survive Argentinian football, which is a big, beautiful madness, you are ready for anywhere in the world.’
So back in his home city, Crespo is honing a philosophy. When football returns in Argentina, expect Defensa y Justicia to ‘respect the ball’ and force the action. ‘For me it’s about identity,’ he says. ‘“This is the way that Crespo wants to play”… I like the managers who have identity like Pep Guardiola or Diego Simeone or Jurgen Klopp.’
Crespo scored an excellent chip over Liverpool Jerzy Dudek to give AC Milan a 3-0 half-time lead in the 2005 Champions League final
Crespo’s hair is shorter and grey now, yet his face has lost none of the child-like emotion which characterised one of the finest strikers of recent times. On one night in 2005, he lived both joy and despair over 120 unforgettable minutes.
Though that AC Milan side included Paolo Maldini, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka, Andriy Shevchenko and Cafu, club football’s biggest prize somehow eluded them.
‘I don’t remember what you’re talking about,’ he jokes when reminded of that night in Istanbul, when Liverpool overturned a 3-0 deficit against Ancelotti’s side.
‘The pain was so great,’ he remembers. ‘But that is why we love football, because it is not mathematics.
‘Pain won over reason. Things simply happened which had to happen. It’s not something you could control.’
Crespo remained on the pitch following the penalty shootout to be sure it was Steven Gerrard, not Maldini, lifting the trophy. From there: ‘I was blind. I don’t remember anything.’
It was particularly cruel on Crespo, who scored twice including a sumptuous chip to make it 3-0. ‘I played one of the best games in my life but it was not enough. It was a real hit to my ego,’ he admits. ‘In that moment I said I want to stop and didn’t want to play any more.’
But despite scoring twice on the night, the Reds hit back in the second half before winning on penalties. The Argentine walking past the trophy admits he wanted to quit the game that night
Now, though, he is at peace. ‘I always wanted to be in football’s history books. To do something people remember. Well, Istanbul is one of those even though I got the negative end,’ he says. ‘This was the only way to swallow such a disappointment.’
Returning to Chelsea helped, too. Particularly given his first league game back ended with a stunning injury-time winner at Wigan in August 2005.
‘Amazing,’ he remembers. ‘I think that was the first brick in this construction to become champions again.’
So it would prove as he helped Mourinho’s men to the 2005-06 title. While in England, though, his own house came crumbling down. ‘The hurt was so big over the lost pregnancy and lost baby,’ Crespo reflects.
‘Also not speaking English correctly it was hard as a family to be able to integrate socially in England while living with great grief.’
Before ending his difficult time in London, he hit 25 goals in 73 games for Chelsea. ‘Football-wise, it was fantastic,’ he says. ‘It was an experience that I would love to be able to live again.’
Following his loan spell at AC Milan, Crespo returned to Chelsea where on his first Premier League game back he scored a stoppage time winner against Wigan Athletic
One year on from Champions League heartbreak he picked up the league title with the Blues
One former team-mate has already made that step. Crespo was impressed with Frank Lampard’s work at Derby and now he’s enjoying seeing his success at Chelsea, too.
‘I think it was a great choice from Roman Abramovich,’ he says. ‘Frankie gives young players the opportunity to show their best and I like that so much.’
If all goes to plan, Crespo could soon watch their progress from closer to home. But there is a world outside London. Would he even work at Liverpool, perhaps?
‘Wow, why not?’ Crespo says. ‘I have admired a lot of what Klopp has done for some time. The way in which he does things, because it’s not only about lifting trophies. I understand that the way is very important.’
So does Bielsa, Yorkshire’s adopted puritan. This season he showed pragmatism doesn’t have to overrule philosophy. Even in the anarchy of the Championship. Even as he broke Leeds’ long curse by getting them promoted to the Premier League after 16 years away.
Before too long, it could be Crespo’s chance at redemption in these parts. And who knows? English football could see yet more Argentinian wand-waving. And yet more fireworks.