South American Cult Heroes: Part 2 - Ariel Ortega: The original 'New Maradona'

Pass notes

Pint-sized bundle of scruff who traded almost exclusively in football's most alluring commodities: through balls, dinked finishes, free-kicks and nutmegs. The prima donna of the New Maradonas and, latterly, owner of the hardest-working headband this side of the 80s rock scene. 


Career in five steps

1. Ortega's first steps in the game ensured that he will forever be synonymous with the red sash of River Plate. Thrown into the first team as a teenager by Daniel Passarella (who would become something of a godfather figure), the midfielder quickly established himself as a crowd favourite thanks to his mazy dribbles, eye for a pass and telepathic relationship with striker Enzo Francescoli. With Ortega pulling the strings, Los Millonarios claimed four Apertura titles in six years and capped a golden era by winning the 1996 Copa Libertadores.

2. It is the fate of all Argentine playmakers to be compared to You Know Who, but until the arrival of Lionel Messi, few made a better fist of living up to the Maradonic ideal than Ortega. He stepped into the national team when his hero was thrown out of the 1994 World Cup and, thanks to his exploits for River, it was not long before he widely viewed as the long-term heir to the No.10 jersey. His big coming-out party in France was destined to end in frustration (of which more below), but he was a key part of the Albiceleste set-up for the best part of a decade.

3. By the time Ortega went to the 1998 World Cup, he had been at Valencia for a season and a half. For all his ability, his first spell in Europe would not go to plan: he left Spain under a cloud and never fully settled at Sampdoria or Parma. It was no great surprise when River repatriated him, cashing in a debt left over from Hernán Crespo's transfer to the Gialloblù. If that was indicative of a restless soul, he would at least rediscover his touch on home soil: surrounded by friends and family, Ortega shone again.

4. That would not be his final European misadventure: six months after a big-money move to Fenerbahçe in 2002, Ortega decided he didn't fancy life in Turkey and walked out. The club were furious and took the case to FIFA, claiming breach of contract. Ortega served a short suspension and was thankful to Newell’s Old Boys for buying out the remainder of his deal, bringing him back to Argentina once more. 

5. More brilliance followed; more controversy, too. Ortega returned for a third spell at River and helped them to the 2008 Clausura, but missed the celebrations on the final day of the season after falling out with manager Diego Simeone, who was fed up of the veteran skipping training sessions. “Why does he have to do this to me in the last match?” Ortega complained. “In the earlier matches I was useful to him and now I’m not?” 


The best of times

Many of Ortega's career highlights came in a River shirt, but no other single moment captures his genius more than his best moment during his one season Sampdoria: a sublime chip in a 4-0 mauling of Internazionale.

He had produced a similar finish in Argentina's World Cup victory over Jamaica the previous summer, coaxing the ball over the goalkeeper in what felt like slow motion, but this was a level up. The mere idea of the goal is outrageous enough, but to actually pull it off – to see the pass coming from that angle and jab that foot (surely the wrong foot!) under it at just the right time to make the ball do that – is godlike. 

Also, if you were in any doubt at all: shots that allow you to make it halfway to the corner flag before the net even ripples are definitely the best kind of shots. This goal would be the set text for Wheeling Away 101 at the University of Celebrations.


The worst of times

Ortega went to the 1998 World Cup with the wind in his sails, buoyed by the support of the manager, his old friend Passarella. There were sparks of quality in Argentina's run to the last eight, but his tournament would end in ignominy against the Netherlands, a forceful upper cut of a headbutt on Edwin van der Sar earning him a red card.

Later, when Passarella entered the dressing room, he was reportedly met by a frantic Ortega, who was desperate to explain himself to his coach. But not because of the headbutt. "I did not dive, Daniel," he is said to have sobbed. "I swear I did not dive!"


Nickname rating

On the face of it, El Burrito – ‘the Little Donkey' – is not the warmest of monikers. Nor does it have a thrilling story behind it: Ortega's father was known as El Burro, so his son simply got lumped with the diminutive.

And yet there is something fitting about the nickname. There's the loveable scruffiness, for a start, but also the low centre of gravity, the unshakeable stubbornness and a certain underdog spirit. 9/10


Extra-curricular activities

The jinking sprite was also a mighty drinker; a damaging relationship with alcohol was a recurring theme throughout his career. There were car crashes, spells in rehab and countless appointments missed, meaning Ortega was rarely out of the news in his homeland.

"I'm going to have the reputation of being a drunk for life," Ortega lamented at one point. "They'll never take that away from me, especially in Argentina."

On the positive side, the same is true of Ortega's raffish charm. It is hard to watch him giggle his way through this advert for a telecom company, for instance, and not warm to the man. He only has three lines (all of which are the same) and yet he still can't keep a straight face.

To be fair to Ortega, he did a slightly better acting job in this one, released ahead of the 2002 World Cup. That wizened face breaks into a convincing grin when the kid hands him the gift that will allow him to "play like a local" in Japan and South Korea.


Key quotes

On his inspirations: "If you ask me who I would like to play like, my answer is like me, like Ortega. I thank God for making me play like this. I don't envy anyone."

On keeping a diplomatic silence: "If I said everything I thought, it would be a car crash."

On beating his man: "I love to feel that little gust of wind from an opponent's leg when you dribble past him."

Diego Maradona: "Everyone thinks El Burrito is a little idiot, but I think he is very intelligent. He spoke to me about how professional he was and also about how unprofessional he could be just because he f****** felt like it."


Last seen

Bursting into tears after setting up a goal for his son, Tomas, in his farewell match. 60,000 people packed into El Monumental for the spectacle.

 Did you know?

Ortega won plenty of admirers during his career, but Claudio Ranieri was not among them. The pair's time together at Valencia was defined by a simmering tension, which came to the boil at the start of 1998, when Ortega accused the affable Italian of lying about his reasons for leaving him out of the side.

This prompted a rare rant from Ranieri: "Ortega has a lot of quality, but he doesn't like to train. He has worked 43 hours fewer than the rest of his team-mates since he arrived at Valencia. He's always tired and bloated. If I'm called a liar by someone I respect, I dislike it. But if it's said by someone who is nothing to me..."

By July, Ortega's days at Mestalla were clearly numbered, even if Ranieri’s stance had softened a touch. "I'm not stupid. I know what Ortega can do," he said. "I have a lot of time for him and people who say otherwise are liars. But I've taken a thousand steps to sort this out and Ariel hasn't even taken one. I'm not Hitler, even if that's what Argentines might say. Ortega is a personal defeat for me."