There are certain rules we’re supposed to obey when running the rule over footballers’ careers.
A big one is that, to be considered a genuine great, a player needs to have achieved at the highest level, for a consistent amount of time, and to have tested himself against the best.
There’s nothing wrong with this metric, of course, but it does assume a certain set of priorities.
After all, it’s not that Ariel Ortega didn’t have the opportunity to challenge himself; he just wanted to live his life differently to most.
Some players given the ‘New Maradona’ tag have carved out careers for themselves overseas, but ‘El Burrito’ recognised the cachet of the moniker was far greater on home soil and thus saw no shame in returning home at stages when others might have gone down a different route.
Even Ortega’s aesthetic was one of a player who belonged in South American football, his stocky build and headband in opposition to the clean-cut athletes of Europe. He looked like a child’s drawing of his future footballing self, drawn in pencil in a Year 5 workbook and coloured in garishly, and he played that way too.
There were some places where you’d be scolded for colouring outside the lines, but he constantly looked for those clubs for whom rebelliousness could be confused for creativity.
Ortega’s preference was always to play his own game, and any efforts made by team-mates, coaches or rivals to interfere with that would be dismissed as fanciful.
His time in Europe was mostly spread between clubs just below the highest level, to ensure he would always be able to embarrass the established order, and there is perhaps no better example than his goal for Sampdoria against Internazionale.
Inter goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was someone you respected; Italy’s first choice at the previous summer’s World Cup, he was coming off a UEFA Cup win with the Nerazzuri and had shut out Samp in a 3-0 reverse fixture. The hosts, meanwhile, were battling relegation – a battle they would eventually lose.
In the real world, the struggling team might win this game with a late penalty or a scrappy winner after a backs-to-the-wall defensive display. A thrashing rounded off by a showboating finish? That only exists in Ariel Ortega’s world.
We shouldn’t take anything away from Vincenzo Montella, whose hat-trick had put Sampdoria 3-0 up, but Ortega’s goal was disgustingly good, the sort of finish you only pull off in the film you write of your own life.
You can’t practice this, purely because you can’t practice conducting a goalkeeper’s movements. Oh, and also because, as a goal or even as a shot, it just doesn’t make sense.
If you were to draw this goal in your notebook, it would be laughed away as both fanciful and borne of impossible design. Its movement from A to B is manageable, but the arc is the sort of thing that earns you a tap on the shoulder from a teacher and a friendly explanation of angles.
There’s something about the goal that feels slightly off, in a way even a regular chip would not. Our mind trains us to expect a movement at a certain time, purely on the basis of all the goals we’ve seen in the past, so by coming in half a beat earlier he jolts us as if waking us from a dream.
Has Ortega found a way to rebel against the human mind as well as against footballing narratives? That would certainly explain it.
Ortega’s movements throughout his career paint the picture of a man at war with himself. At River he was regularly a member of a club that was there to be got at, to the point where every move to Europe had to be the opposite; a chance to punch up.
Even his most memorable actions in an Argentina shirt point to a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation, a player trying to maintain an inferiority complex while simultaneously sustaining a self-image as someone too good for his surroundings.
A headbutt on Edwin van der Sar, seconds after being denied a penalty following a theatrical fall, was as close as a professional player can come to picking up his ball and going home. Except it came in the quarter-final of a World Cup.
It makes sense that, even at his lowest ebb, Ortega was able to deploy his trademark rise, as if marking the trajectory of a chip.
His toughest enemy was always a goalkeeper who stood up tall, yet like full-backs showing Arjen Robben or Thierry Henry inside, few seemed to learn.
If you give Ariel Ortega a chance to chip the goalkeeper, he will take it. Even if you don’t give him that chance, he will find a way to make it possible, as with this goal for Argentina.
He has multiple options yet picks the hardest one just because he can. These are the actions of a man simultaneously looking to ease into his comfort zone and looking to make that comfort zone as uncomfortable for himself as possible.
If someone told you Ortega used to practice with a ping-pong ball, you’d believe them, but you’d be just as quick to believe rumours that he trained with a shot-put.
He has created a mythology where the difficult looks easy and the easy looks difficult, all the while failing to offer any real justification beyond preferring to do whatever gives him the greatest joy when it comes off.
Throughout his career, Ortega did just enough to earn the love of those who only saw him in bursts, while at times infuriating those forced – through club allegiances or personal preferences – to rely on him for any sort of consistency.
Still, Argentina have been flush with attacking talent in the post-Maradona era, but those who showed consistency from start to finish aren’t necessarily the ones spoken of in the most glowing terms.
An ability to fulfil ones potential might be the most recognised example of success, but Ortega’s failure to do so leaves fans with memories of the real Ariel Ortega and the one they created in their heads.
And the real one gave us just enough to make his imagined self greater than most players will ever be.
By Tom Victor