Ariel Ortega

For day four of the WSC advent calendar we have a piece from issue 259, September 2008. Ariel Ortega – nicknamed “little donkey” – was dubbed the next Maradona and so it partially proved, though not in a good way, reports Chris Bradley

There was one conspicuous absence as the open-top bus carried the victorious River Plate squad through the streets of Buenos Aires on June 22. The fans were there, with flags and songs; there was joy and champagne and fireworks; but, not for the first time this season, there was no Ariel Ortega.

An ever-present in the Argentine press, if not the River training ground, Ortega was left out of the squad for the final match of the season, against Banfield. It was to have been a celebratory occasion, with the title already wrapped up, and the news didn’t go down well. Instead of staying with his team-mates, he headed home “to avoid spreading bad vibes”. For good measure, he announced he was leaving and that it was all manager Diego Simeone’s fault.

“Why does he have to do this to me in the last match?” he complained. “In the earlier matches I was useful to him and now I’m not?” If he was really looking for reasons, Ortega had only to reflect on the two weeks that had passed since sealing the title. Twice he didn’t turn up for training and, although he did make the session the day before the Banfield game, he was reportedly in no fit state to play. Witnesses said he had been in a bar until just a few hours before the squad met up and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he then slept through most of the afternoon.

Ortega is known as the “little donkey” – not, as anyone who has seen him play could testify, because he hoofs it and hopes. It refers instead to his stubbornness, yet it could just as easily apply to his off-pitch antics as to his battling qualities in a match. An idol to the fans, he has been more of a headache for his managers, suffering problems with alcohol and having both his temperament and work ethic called into question. He says he is misunderstood.

During a brief early flirtation with European football, Ortega passed swiftly between Valencia, Sampdoria and Parma. For Claudio Ranieri, then Valencia boss, he was an idler who made no effort in training and was swiftly given the chop. An article in Gazzetta dello Sport in January 2007 placed him alongside Rivaldo and Ian Rush as one of the most disappointing foreign signings in Serie A history.

A second successful spell at River prompted a big-money move to Fenerbahce, but he walked out halfway through his first season, claiming he found it difficult to adjust. Unlike some of his employers, the Turks didn’t even try to humour Ortega and had FIFA slap him with a ban for breach of contract. It needed Argentine team Newell’s Old Boys to take a gamble by buying out his contract to end a 19-month exile from the pro game.

As it happened it was to prove good business, and a league title for Newell’s in 2006 led to River Plate taking on Ortega for the third time. The manager then was Daniel Passarella, who had also been in charge when Ortega made his league debut as a 17-year-old. He had also coached the national team at the 1998 World Cup – Argentina crashed out to Holland in the quarter-finals, after Ortega had been sent off for flinging himself down in the box in search of a penalty and then head-butting Edwin van der Sar after the goalkeeper argued with him.

Ortega had inherited the No 10 shirt from Diego Maradona and the two shared a room in the early days. Maradona was obviously impressed. “Everyone thinks the little donkey is a little idiot, but I think he is very intelligent,” he would say much later. “He spoke to me about how professional he was and also about how unprofessional he could be just because he fucking felt like it.” A bit more of the latter, perhaps.

Passarella was dismissed by River in 2007, after two years of underperformance. During that time Ortega was occasionally brilliant but was in and out of the team and eventually sought professional help after repeated relapses into alcoholism. Exit Passarella, enter Simeone, a former Argentina team-mate. The new boss was soon tearing his hair out over missed training sessions, and the press reported that Ortega had been binge-drinking and threatening his wife. But for now at least, with a little prompting from the chairman, the two appear to have kissed and made up. Ortega has even stated his desire to one day manage River Plate. One can only hope for his sake he takes charge of 11 more willing professionals.

From WSC 259 September 2008