Undefeated. That was the word on the minds of River Plate fans as their team marched into La Bombonera on 11 December 1994. Not once in their 93-year history had Los Millonarios won a trophy without losing a game. And yet, as the fireworks hissed and the Boca fans jeered, those brave enough to travel from the northern barrios realised they had nothing to fear. Their team had gone unbeaten all season under Américo Gallego; this, the penultimate game of the Apertura, was the final test before their coronation against Vélez Sarsfield. This was more than a Superclásico – this was a chance to make history.
River had been immense throughout the campaign, the crumbling majesty of Enzo Francescoli abetted by a clutch of Argentina’s brightest talents. Roberto Ayala and Marcelo Gallardo might have been destined for the top, but their ability paled in comparison to the 20-year-old force of nature on the right-hand touchline.
El Burrito – The Little Donkey – was already kicking up a storm. By the time Néstor Fabbri scythed him down for a penalty on 14 minutes, everybody knew it was Ariel Ortega’s day. Francescoli dispatched the spot-kick, but the crowning moment of River’s season arrived 10 minutes later. Gallardo had cut infield, dinking a ball into the path of Ernesto Cortí, who cut out two Boca defenders to find Ortega unmarked on the left. Receiving the ball slightly behind him, he chested it into his path before cracking a half-volley beyond the despairing Carlos Navarro-Montoya.
Over the next two decades, the sight of Orteguita whipping off his shirt in celebration would become one of the most cherished and revered among Millonarios fans the world over. In three separate spells, he would stake a claim as one of the club’s greatest ever players. Why, then, is he such an enigma?
Twenty years before that day in 1994, Ariel Ortega was born in a dustbowl town near the Bolivian border. The son of a welder, he grew up in Ledesma’s grimy badlands imitating River great Ramón Díaz, feinting and dribbling through the pick-up games in the rocky potrero outside his home. When he was 16 he attended a local football tournament, organised by River Plate to unearth young talent. What they found was a genius. “There were 500 guys,” remembers Ortega. “I grabbed the ball and didn’t give it to anybody. I played well and was told to come back.”
At the time, River were enjoying perhaps the greatest period in their history. They had won their first Libertadores in 1986, as well as the intercontinental title. Daniel Passarella became manager two years later, one of Argentina’s greatest clubs led by arguably its greatest ever captain.
Almost immediately, Passarella saw something special in Ortega. The scruffy Jujeño was a shy boy with an arrogant talent, and the coach took an almost fatherly interest in his well-being, even depositing his first paycheck into a bank account on his behalf. Only in later years, when Ortega’s future indiscretions caught up with his ability, would he realise the extent of Passarella’s influence, admitting “he was not just a technician, he cared a lot.”
Back then, though, the 17-year-old just wanted to play football. He repaid Passarella’s faith instantly, setting up the winner on his debut against Platense before starring in a team that won three titles and River’s second Libertadores by 1996.
Ortega’s gymnastic dribbling mesmerised the Monumental faithful, as he tricked and feinted past defences like an antelope evading a pride of lions. Countless defenders were left embarrassed in his wake as his stocky legs twisted one way before carrying the ball in another. For vast swathes of those early years, he was simply unplayable, a fireball of talent and machismo streaking easily past powerless opponents. It was only a matter of time before the Europeans came calling.
Almost 20 years earlier, Diego Maradona’s transfer to Barcelona had broken the world record. It was only natural, then, that his heir apparent became the most expensive player in Argentine football history, following El Pibe’s path to LaLiga by joining Claudio Ranieri and Valencia. Unlike Maradona, however, Ortega would struggle in Spain. Los Che were a team of inconsistent technicians, and Ranieri was intent on adding discipline and tactical nous to his coven of wan expressionists.
Ortega was an enganche in every sense, a combustible playmaker as capable of madness as he was of majesty. His failure to follow instructions saw him quickly fall foul of his new manager. Before long he was on the bench, and eventually banished from the squad. As he left for the 1998 World Cup in France, Ortega had already been deemed surplus to requirements by the club’s hierarchy.
The eyes had been too wide; the expression just a little too fierce. When it emerged that Maradona had tested positive for ephedrine, nobody who’d seen his violent celebrations against Greece could be surprised. Argentina’s talisman was sent home from the 1994 World Cup in disgrace, and their tournament was suddenly in jeopardy.
A shy 20-year-old had been thrust awkwardly into the spotlight, chosen to fill the most gargantuan of shoes in the next game against Romania. Predictably, Ariel Ortega’s Argentina debut had failed to convince, and they had crashed out of the competition with a whimper.
When he arrived in France four years later, Ortega was determined to star on his own terms. Argentina were among the favourites, with Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone heading a clutch of world-class players entering their prime. None, however, would prove more influential than the Valencia forward, who had a hand in almost 80 percent of his side’s goals.
The highlight came against Jamaica in the group stage, two beautifully-crafted strikes showcasing his otherworldly ability as the Reggae Boyz were hammered 5-0. When Argentina faced the Netherlands in the quarter-finals, the stage was set for Ortega to finally announce himself as one of the game’s greatest.
Instead, the world caught a glimpse of his thirst for self-destruction. He had endured a difficult afternoon, suffocated by a Dutch defence that had been instructed to close him down at every opportunity. Eventually his frustrations boiled over, and he threw himself into a bemused Jaap Stam hoping for a penalty. Mexican referee Arturo Brizio Carter didn’t buy it, and nor did Edwin van der Sar, whose protestations earned him a swift headbutt to the chin.
Ortega was dismissed and his countrymen followed soon after, put to the sword by a moment of Dennis Bergkamp magic. A Valencia spokesman was quick to join in the media scrum, sneering to the assembled press that “Ortega is like that”. A headline in El País summed it up with brutal irony; Ortega was “Decisive in Argentina, Useless in Valencia”.
Despite his violent outburst, he had done enough to convince Sampdoria into a transfer. There were flashes of wizardry in Genoa – a deft chip against Gianluca Pagliuca’s Inter was a particular highlight – but he was the lone star for a team struggling badly under Luciano Spalletti.
Halfway through the season, David Platt was appointed to stop what seemed like an irreversible decline. The “future of football coaching” – as he was christened by Gianluca Vialli – lasted just six games, dropping Ortega from the team in favour of loan signing Lee Sharpe. The result was as humiliating as it was inevitable – Sampdoria were relegated and Ortega was packing his bags.
By this stage, his penchant for rule-breaking had already become known on the peninsula. In December 1998 he was arrested and breathalysed alongside teammates Gastón Córdoba and the Brazilian Caté, the result of a rowdy drinking session in the Italian capital which had seen them brawl with fans outside a nightclub.
Ortega’s indiscretions weren’t enough, however, to deter another Italian club from taking a punt. Parma had just won the UEFA Cup, and with Juan Sebastián Verón decamping for Lazio, Alberto Malesani saw the impish Sampdoria forward as the perfect replacement. Ortega’s third club in three years brought more frustration. The Ducali had hoped to forge a partnership between Hernán Crespo and his fellow River alumnus, but from a combined total of 25 goals, just three were registered by the tempestuous number 10 – the same tally as French utility man, Alain Boghossian.
“I’m happy again.” Ortega was speaking at his unveiling as a River Plate player before the opening game of the 2000/01 season. With Parma cutting their losses on the misfiring forward, Ortega found himself back at his spiritual home, in front of a crowd who already worshipped his every move. For once in his career, the timing was impeccable.
Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar and Juan Pablo Ángel joined forces with the new arrival to form River’s famous Cuatro Fantásticos. Together the quartet was insatiable, picking teams apart under the auspices of the returning Américo Gallego. Ortega and Aimar were given starting places on the wing, profiting from the staunch defensive instinct of Toto Berizzo and Claudio Husaín to raid infield against terrified Argentine defences.
The problem, however, was having all four on the pitch at the same time. Together they appeared on just six occasions, and despite scoring over 40 goals in less than 20 games, River’s Galácticos would end their sumptuous campaign without a trophy.
It was a scandal, but it didn’t matter to Ortega. He was home and enjoying his football again, and his performances reflected it. Twenty-three goals in 56 appearances spoke of a player who had rediscovered his mojo, even after Aimar and Saviola had been poached by Valencia and Barcelona respectively. In 2002, Ortega became the solo fantástico, dovetailing superbly with youngster Fernando Cavenaghi to seal the Clausura.
Finally, he resembled the player that had lit up the World Cup four years earlier. Manchester United were linked with an offer, but it was Fenerbahçe who put down the $7.5m required to lure him from the Monumental once more. In hindsight, he may wish he’d never left. “From the very first moment, I realised that this country wasn’t for me,” Ortega wrote in his autobiography, after touching down in Istanbul for the first time. The language, food and culture quickly proved anathema to the homesick Argentine, who admitted that his time in the Turkish capital “was like torture”.
Even a goal in a 6-0 victory over Galatasaray couldn’t solve his troubles. After just 11 games, he’d had enough. Argentina were due to play the Netherlands in a friendly fixture on 11 February 2003. Marcelo Bielsa had called Ortega up to the squad, and as the Fener forward boarded the plane, he knew he was leaving Istanbul for the last time. After the game concluded, Ortega flew immediately to Buenos Aires, informing his employers that he wouldn’t be back.
Ortega’s agent Juan Berros cited a list of promises that the board had broken. They, Berros argued, “know that Ariel is very upset because they have not fulfilled anything in his contract”. Fenerbahce, he claimed, had promised to add more Argentine players to the squad, but the signings of German coach Werner Lorant hadn’t lived up to the promise.
Predictably, FIFA took a dim view of Ortega’s absence. After the Turkish club submitted a complaint to football’s governing body, Ortega was slapped with an $11m fine and a total ban until December 2003. A player who had once looked like the successor to Maradona’s throne was now, at the age of 29, without a club and a hope. Unable to buy out his contract and with suitors baulking at his temperament, he had no option but to retire in despair.
Gallego would again be his saviour, the Newell’s Old Boys manager using the profits from Mauro Rosales’ sale to Ajax to buy out the rest of Ortega’s contract. El Burrito had trained alone for most of his 19-month absence from the game, but the sheer release on his début in Rio Negro was clear for all to see. Ortega would instantly repay the club that brought him “back to joy”, scoring a penalty before leading La Lepra to a stunning Apertura title in 2004. In his eternal battle between talent and temper, football finally appeared to be gaining supremacy.
Despite his growing affinity for the people and football in Rosario, Ortega could never ignore the call of River. When they came for him two years later the choice was simple, and he was reunited with the man who had granted him his début over a decade earlier. This time, though, the partnership with Daniel Passarella would be less fruitful.
Ortega started the 2006 Apertura well, but his growing dependence on alcohol finally reached a crisis point in October. Rumours had long swirled off the field, accusations of his unruly behaviour filling the pages of the Argentine tabloids. When his disease was made public, he was withdrawn from the squad to seek treatment.
He emerged from rehab just a month later, scoring a divine chip against San Lorenzo before embracing Passarella on the sidelines. It felt like a rebirth, but those who know the scourge of alcoholism are all too familiar with false dawns. In January 2007, Passarella had praised Ortega’s recovery, admitting that his star was “on the right track” after watching him score one and set up another in a friendly. Barely 24 hours later, he was escorted from the team hotel in an extremely inebriated state, brought back to Buenos Aires for further treatment.
A familiar pattern ensued, with Ortega oscillating between regal talent and riotous collapse. Things worsened when Passarella was sacked in 2007, with his successor Diego Simeone giving short shrift to Orteguita’s off-field exploits. As the front pages splashed with news of his binge-drinking, Simeone’s patience evaporated. By the time the Clausura was sealed in 2008, Ortega was excluded from the squad and placed on the transfer list. “It was the hardest decision I’ve made,” said Simeone at a press conference to announce Ortega’s departure. Just days before, the River forward had drunkenly crashed his pickup truck at a service station. It was the last straw.
Independiente Rivadavia paid $500,000 to bring the troubled playmaker to Mendoza, promising him first-team football in the Nacional B on condition that he attend a rehab program in nearby Santiago. Despite his obvious problems, it was seen as a massive coup.
It didn’t take long for the euphoria to curdle. Ortega was in no condition to contribute on the field and it showed, with repeated absences from training and ill-tempered showings on the pitch resulting in his footballing nadir. On 1 May 2009, Rivadavia president Daniel Vila announced that his contract was rescinded.
Ortega’s addiction continued to blight him back in Buenos Aires, but his performances ticked up slightly. As his condition relapsed and remitted, the 36-year-old was loaned to local outfit All Boys in 2011. When news of his signing filtered through, he was followed to his new team hotel by dozens of adoring River fans, who swarmed around the Mar de Ajo resort desperate to meet their idol in the flesh. Again, however, he would frustrate.
After missing two training sessions in a week, coach Pepe Romero dropped Ortega from the squad for a match against Tigre in April. Predictably, the arrangement would prove to be short-lived, and a 36-year-old Ortega returned to River once more under new coach Juan José Lopez.
The writing was on the wall straight away. After Ortega missed the first day of pre-season training with “stomach problems”, he was informed by Lopez and the now-president, Passarella, that he was being removed from the squad. For a player who had forged a career from moments of spectacular skill, it was the most innocuous and mundane of exits. He retired in 2012, after a season with Defensores de Belgrano in the Metropolitano B.
River wouldn’t – couldn’t – let Ortega’s career finish on such a whimper. Not a player who, more than any other, had captured the hearts and minds of their fans, one who had fought with everything he had in each of his 272 appearances. A man who had more than his fair share of demons, but played as if no earthly burden could slow him down.
It was no surprise, then, when on the 13 July 2013, a farewell match was organised in Ortega’s honour at El Monumental. After 24 minutes, he received a standing ovation from 60,000 adoring Millonarios, the cries of “Orteee! Orteee!” causing him to burst into tears. He would even have time to set up a goal for his young son Tomasito, before walking off amidst a cacophony of flares and fireworks. Here was this most human of Gods, receiving a farewell befitting of his majestic talent, if not his ultimately-frustrating career. “I want to thank you all,” he boomed over the stadium speakers. “Thank you very much and thank God for making me a fan of River.”
In the course of a career that spanned over two decades, Ortega had sped, fled and dribbled into the hearts of football fans everywhere. He may not have reached the heights that he or his country expected, but for the worshipping fans of River Plate, he will always be El Mas Grande.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45