Ariel Ortega: The Anti-Messi
Prior to Lionel Messi even capturing the spotlight of the entire football world, there was a young man from the province of Jujuy that was making a big splash in the then-vaunted River Plate youth system. He was poster child of River Plate's youth system in the early 90's. He completely skipped that process and made his debut with River's first team on December 14, 1991 against Platense. His performance left the Argentine news media amazed as to what "Orteguita" could do with a ball "tied" to his feet.
Ariel Ortega was going to be the promise that would help Argentina make the transfer from the Diego Maradona era. He had the potential to be the player that took over the baton and become one of the most talented players of the decade. There was no doubt he had the tools to become that and possibly exceed whatever expectations set for a player like him.
"Orteguita" had everything any player could ask for- pace, dribble, change of direction, a shot, he had a future. at his footballistic apex, there was not a player that could match him. Not one player could defend him. He was also called "Burrito", but that was more of a reference to... well let's leave it at two words so you can get the idea. Donkey Show. If you don' t get it, well I really can't help you. He beat you from the outside, beat you going to goal. He was a player that marked a generation in South American football. Had he been successful outside of Europe. Daniel Passarella was credited for bringing this gem of a player to the ranks of River Plate. Some credited him with "saving" his life... or at least extending it.
At the same time he had to fight with various internal demons that hindered his progress. Until recently, he was still known as "Orteguita". That is not a good thing. For a player in his 30's to still be referred to in a diminutive status, that meant that he had not grown into the man or player that everyone expected him to mold into. His explosive personality was part of the deserved "Orteguita" tag he was not able to shake off. His personality was always a complicated one, thus not helping him obtain stability with any club that he was a part of during his career after 1996. That was a very important year in his career. That year he helped win River third consecutive league title as well as we the Copa Libertadores. He was also part of the Argentine side that had to settle for the silver medal in the 1996 Olympics when they fell to a Nigerian side that had players like Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Sunday Oliseh, Celestine Babayaro, and the eccentric Taribo West.
He then arrived at Valencia where his relationship with Claudio Rainieri was tempestuous to say the least. Despite his disappointing stay in Spain he did have one moment of brilliance at the Nou Camp.
He would then move to Sampdoria and eventually Parma, but the damage was already done. As a player, people knew that he had incredible talent, but his temper had gotten the best of him. This was demonstrated in the quarterfinals of the 1998 World Cup against Holland. Him "headbutting" Edwin van der Sar left the Albiceleste with a man down, eventually with Dennis Bergkamp's brilliant strike at the death.
Like every hero in every movie, there is one weakness that he has. In Ariel Ortega's case, it was alcohol. One has to remember that some parts of the Latin America, alcohol and football go hand in hand. On occasion, people play football with alcohol in their hand.
Some say that Ortega was in the middle of that culture and there was no way out until Passarella found him. Reporters and people that were close to this situation. Some say he was illiterate when he arrived to Buenos Aires. But as he grew older and adapted to life in the capital and realized the importance of playing in a big club like River Plate. Unfortunately, his demons overcame him and started to get the best of him. His bouts of truancy were front page news in the Argentine media. Passarella was looking for ways to help his protegé, but there were no quick solutions. He had to go away and try to fix his issues.
This is why Diego Simeone was the only man that saw him for what was. If it were any other professional situation, Ortega would be gone. He had unlimited chances such as the huge money that he earned at Fenerbahce. He was already etching a place in the fans' hearts, but never wanted to adapt. He left and was gone for a year. Américo Gallego took him in at Newell's Old Boys and won a domestic title. He would then go into his well-documented drama at River Plate and eventually would go to Independiente Rivadavia in Argentina's second division.
So whose fault is it that his situation has gotten to this point? The media? The coaches? The fans that enable him when he is out on the street? To be honest, it's everyone's fault. We all are to blame because his problem was never an issue when River was winning titles. Ariel Ortega would have been Lio Messi before Lio made the leap across the pond. Ariel had the potential to be one of those players that would have described a generation, which makes his slippery slope down into the abyss all the more tragic.
Tags: River Plate , Ariel Ortega
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