Ortega nearing the end?
The Club World Cup is a competition which perhaps struggles for relevance in Europe (if not the rest of the planet), but at times both it and its predecessor the Intercontinental Cup seem, in hindsight, to have marked an era. Fifteen years ago this December, it featured two playmakers who seemed destined for greatness: for European champions Juventus, a 21-year-old Alessandro Del Piero was Man of the Match and the scorer of the game's only goal. For South American champions River Plate, meanwhile, Ariel Ortega was a sprightly 22 years of age, and a key figure.
The match in 1996 was hyped as a battle between Del Piero and Ortega, two future stars of world football, and the Italian came off better by the tightest of margins; with minutes to go, Ortega hit the crossbar for River. Moments later, Del Piero was stabbing home from a corner to give Juventus the trophy.
Since then, both have enjoyed success, but the respective ends of their playing careers seem likely to be viewed very differently. Both have been, to a greater or lesser degree, 'confidence players', but Del Piero will sign off for Juventus - when he eventually does - as the club's all-time highest scorer. He also ranks high on the list of all-time top scorers in European competition and can boast a clutch of club trophies and a World Cup. Ortega had massive success with River Plate, but never quite made the impression he'd have liked in Europe, and these days cuts a much more forlorn figure.
Ortega moved back to his homeland in 2004 to inspire Newell's Old Boys of Rosario to an unforeseen league title after a protracted three-way battle over his registration involving Fenerbahce, FIFA and River. Moving back to River afterwards, he was later a key figure, with Diego Buonanotte and goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, in helping the club to their last title, the 2008 Torneo Clausura. All the while, though, he had off-pitch issues, often missing training and virtually failing to turn up for some matches, even though in the main his performances were good.
Ortega himself admitted that he was struggling with alcoholism, but in Argentina the press haven't liked to use the word, preferring to refer to the player's 'demons' or 'problem', as if it would be lacking in respect to Ortega to use the word 'alcohol' publicly, even after he's acknowledged it himself. Media squeamishness or not, the player's battle with addiction looks likely to overshadow the final chapter of his career, which may well have just begun.
After spending the 2008-2009 season on loan to Independiente Rivadavia, a second division team in the province of Mendoza, Ortega gave a series of uneven performances last season and in the 2010 Apertura for River, and was loaned out to River's direct relegation rivals All Boys in January 2011. That River were happy to let Ortega go to a side struggling alongside them in the relegation table perhaps speaks volumes about new manager J.J. Lopez's opinion of Ortega's current value.
Ortega has given a few distinctly below-par performances for All Boys so far this year, and on Thursday and Friday of last week, he didn't turn up to training. He'd called ahead to advise the club that he wouldn't be present, but hadn't given a reason; manager Jose Romero explained that Ortega had remained at home for 'personal reasons,' before going on to raise several eyebrows in the press room by candidly admitting, 'those reasons have all been well documented in the past, of course...'
All Boys got a 1-0 win away to Tigre at the weekend with Ortega, and on Sunday it was reported that he had phoned Romero and told him he'd like to speak to him and then to the squad on Monday morning. On Monday, a River Plate fans' website claimed Ortega had told them, 'I don't want to return to training with All Boys, and I wish I'd never left River.' Given that he hadn't been given any choice about leaving River, that seemed a slightly odd thing for him to say. Within hours Ortega had publicly refuted ever saying it, and insisted that he remains at All Boys, can't see himself being in River's plans for the foreseeable future - which is much closer to what he's previously said on the subject - and wants the club he's currently playing for to avoid the drop.
River, for their part, are showing every appearance of not needing him. Lopez took charge in November last year, beating bitter rivals Boca Juniors in his first match with Ortega in the team. Prior to the start of the current campaign, his decision to loan Ortega out was questioned by many fans - for whom the former Argentina midfielder is one of the biggest heroes in the club's history - but few are quite so vocal now, with River sitting top of the table halfway through the Clausura (those relegation worries are down to Argentina's labyrinthine system, which sees a separate table based on results over three seasons used to determine who goes down).
Argentina is a country where personal mythologies in public life - be they political, cultural or of course sporting - count for an awful lot, and therein lies the reason that so many River fans have been forgiving of Ortega even to the point of still believing he should be in River's team when to most external observers, he looks over the hill. His latest indiscipline at All Boys, though, has more people than ever asking whether he's nearing the end. His River contract runs until 2014 - when he'll be 40 - but he surely won't be there then, if he ever returns.
The player known as El Burrito ('The Little Donkey') is at least as loved at River as Del Piero is at Juve, but the mood is somewhat less serene for what looks increasingly like a career staggering towards the end.