Néstor Ortigoza, defying convention and a return to Argentina's roots
“He's fat, he's round, his arse is on the ground... [insert name of rotund 80s or 90s footballer here].” As late as 1994-95, Liverpool's team photo contained at least three double-chins and many were grateful that was the era of baggy shirts. Modern conditioning and dieticians have largely rendered the fat footballer extinct in Europe, but the winning goal in the 2014 Copa Libertadores final, when San Lorenzo finally broke their duck, was scored by Néstor Ortigoza. The Paraguayan had been one of the outstanding creative players in the Argentinian league for some time but by no measure could he be described as svelte.
Like Diego Maradona and Carlos Tévez before him, Ortigoza’s indigenous roots gave him huge popularity in the poorer neighbourhoods and villas of Argentina. Ortigoza still travelled on the Buenos Aires Subte even at the peak of his career and the day after the Libertadores triumph his mother, an enormous woman, appeared on TV, laughing about how both she and her son are addicted to chocolates. "Whenever Johnny comes round, he always brings a box and we scoff the lot in front of the TV," she explained in a broad Paraguayan accent.
Which itself requires some explanation. She wanted to call her boy Johnny, but he was born in Merlo, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, in 1984. The Falklands War was a recent memory and English names were disapproved of, so he was registered as Néstor. In 2009, he took Paraguayan citizenship and went on to win 31 caps for his parents’ country.
Ortigoza’s shape was representative of something else about that San Lorenzo side. In an era of high-tempo, hard-pressing football, Edgardo Bauza’s approach was defiantly old-school. San Lorenzo played at a slower pace, with Ortigoza and his defensive midfield partner Juan Mercier so deep that at times they seemed almost to be playing with six at the back. Their passing was more lateral than vertical and Ortigoza loved to invoke ‘la pausa’, those moments of stillness before a playmaker delivers the killer pass.
Ortigoza was 29 when he won the Libertadores and Mercier 34. They had first teamed up as a ‘doble 5’ in the Argentinos Juniors team that won the clausura in 2010, after which they went their separate ways – Ortigoza to San Lorenzo and Mercier first to Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia, and then to Al-Wasl in the UAE. Mercier’s wife failed to settle in the Middle-East and so his coach at Al-Wasl, Maradona, who had called him up to the Argentina side in 2009, allowed him to look for a route back home. Maradona recommended Mercier to his friend Matías Lammens, the young lawyer who had just become president of San Lorenzo (and subsequently was named Minister of Sport) and he signed in June 2012.
Having failed to replicate his Argentinos Juniors form at San Lorenzo, Ortigoza had been sent out on loan in 2012-13 to Emirates Club in the UAE. When he returned in July 2013 he was not expected to stay for long, but reunited with Mercier in a pre-season friendly, the pair clicked again. “We know each other’s game by heart,” Mercier explained after the Libertadores victory. “We both know how the other moves on the field, and we complement each other. if he goes forward, then I’ll stay back, and vice-versa."
"We talk to each other all the time on the pitch,” Ortigoza explained. “I say, ‘Hey, Baldy, careful because they’re coming down that side…’ or, ‘Move to the right, because they’re going to come through there.’ Ortigoza insisted that during all their time together, they had never argued, nor sworn at each other on the pitch.
San Lorenzo had won the inicial in December 2013, playing attacking football under Juan Antonio Pizzi, but, in a move that demonstrated the foresight of the club president Matías Lammens and his board, and how focused they were on the Libertadores, when Pizzi left for Valencia in Spain in January 2014, they chose Bauza as a replacement and implemented a different strategy. Having won the Libertadores with Liga de Quito of Ecuador in 2008, Bauza had clear ideas about how he was going to do it again.
"The first condition is to have a good team – there’s no secret in that, but then, you must know how to play games of 180 minutes,” he said. “If everyone knows how to read, interpret, control games of 180 minutes, with all the factors that can intervene – altitude, difficult stadiums, the pressure of rival fans – then you’ve won the first battle. You have to be clear with the players about what you want them to do at home, and what you want them to do away. To minimise errors. To get everyone to have in their minds that the smallest of errors can knock you out, to make sure everyone has total concentration, that everyone is conscious that away goals count double and that these are the determinants that define the matches."
San Lorenzo did not let in a single goal at home from the last 16 onwards.
“We respected an ideology of play," said Mercier after the final. "Previously, I wasted too many passes. Every ten times I had the ball at my feet, I was capable of hitting nine balls to nowhere. Today, perhaps, I only make about two of those bad passes. Now, I just give the ball to those who can generate the play.”
Bauza admits that it took a while to get his concepts across. At one point, results in the league were not going well but the board stuck by him. The transition between the vertical football of Pizzi and the “balanced” – to use Bauza's favourite word, was not easy. "There's not a team in the world that advances if they don't know how to defend," he said.
Of the 20 Argentine Primera División managers in 2014, 12 were under the age of 45 and only two, Bauza and Rosario Central’s Miguel Ángel Russo were over 50. Of that younger generation, six had played under Marcelo Bielsa, which perhaps explains their focus on pace and verticality.
There was a huge debate at the time about the point at which vertical football became vertigonoso – frenetic or dizzy. There is an argument that when the Bielsa blueprint is applied to smaller clubs, without top quality players, the play becomes too frantic, with too many players miscontrolling, trying to play the ball too quickly and therefore losing possession cheaply. The Association of Argentinian Coaches (AFTA), were particularly concerned that there was an over-emphasis on speed and pressing in youth football to the detriment of developing technique. In that respect, Bauza and Russo (who had also won the Libertadores, with Boca in 2007 when their game was based around Juan Román Riquelme) acted as a buffer against the high-tempo trend.
One respected pundit who voiced his concerns was the late Roberto Perfumo, who played for Argentina in two World Cups (1966, and, as captain, in 1974). He wrote in 2014 that while the new attacking style was enjoyable to watch, as a former centre back he was troubled by the standard of defending in Argentina. "Marking is also a skill," he observed, "and defending is an art."
On the other side was the outspoken Dario Franco, who scored for Argentina against England in a friendly at Wembley in 1991. He was the epitome of the new breed of manager. His 2014 Defensa y Justicia team were so quick and forward-thinking that they were nicknamed ‘Atacar y Justicia’. Franco came through the youth ranks under Bielsa at Newell’s. "I am a bielsista through and through, until I die," he proudly declared. "I like the way he sees football, the way he sets up his team, the aggressiveness he transmits, to pressure the opposition… the fact that he always tries to play vertical, always trying to be the protagonist".
I am a police officer, currently attached to the North East Borough CID of the Metropolitan Police, based at Stratford Police Station (all our statements start like that), and on 31 January 2020 at approximately 0730 hours, after a gruelling, but sadly typical, nightshift that involved a gang-related double stabbing as well as a couple of violent domestic assaults, I got on the bus home and stared out of the window…
… My mind went back to Argentina. In what now seems another lifetime, I lived in Buenos Aires, getting by on writing football articles, teaching English, and generally living cheaply. Sometimes it feels as though it never really happened, but I can still smell the spicy chorizo and cooking oil as you approached the stadiums and hear the noise of the drums and distinctive crowd chants (Bonnie Tyler's ‘It's a Heartache’ and Culture Club's ‘Karma Chameleon’ always amused me).
I’d first visited Argentina as a backpacker when I was still in my 20s (just) and was knocked out by the food and wine, the cafes, the women, the buses, the green kiosks selling newspapers, tango, the fading glory of the buildings and train stations and, most of all, I thought I had found the closest thing to football heaven.
Scratch beneath the surface and, of course, when you actually live and work in a place, you get a more accurate perspective of how it operates. One of the most disheartening things about Argentina is realising the extent to which corruption has infiltrated society at every level. Football, of course, is no exception – a lot of that amazing noise and atmosphere inside the stadiums that I naively thought was generated spontaneously by the fans is organised and choreographed by quasi-mafia organisations (the Barra Bravas). I’ve been at a match where a fan was shot dead just outside the stadium.
But I don't want all my beautiful memories corrupted. I want to believe that some of them were untainted. Like the time when my local team Argentinos Juniors won the 2010 clausura. I Iived 10 minutes walk from their cramped stadium, where the fans are so close to the edge of the pitch that there's hardly room for the linesman to run up and down. On the last day of the season, thousands of us boarded rickety 1950s football special buses, escorted by a police motorcade across the capital to Huracán's stadium; flags, chanting, heads out of windows, fans jumping up and down, doing that Argentinian arm movement thing (the best I can describe it is as a sort of downwards Nazi salute, often done with both arms at once, but it carries no political connotations – crowds also do it at pop concerts and even in churches).
After clinching the title with a 2-1 win at Huracán, the buses took us back to Argentinos Juniors’ stadium, el Estádio Diego Maradona, and the celebrations went on into the early hours. There was a family atmosphere and the players – including my favourite, Ortigoza – were interviewed on the pitch. The biggest cheers were for the local hero and manager Claudio Borghi.
As a player, Borghi was the number 10 shirt and was the enganche – literally, the hook –, who joined midfield to attack, a classic Argentinian playmaker – in the legendary Argentinos Juniors team that won the Copa Libertadores in 1985 and then lost on penalties to Juventus in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo. Borghi's 2010 title-winning team also played with an enganche in Facundo Coria, who scored the winning goal on that final day at Huracán. The classic 4-3-1-2 formation was going out of fashion at the time, the logic being that if you stopped the enganche you effectively neutered the whole side as a creative force. That can happen, but it becomes a lot more difficult when there is a player as clever as Ortigoza behind him. The enganche then moves wide, drawing his markers with him and opening space for other midfielders.
The promising Coria, then 22, moved to Villarreal soon after, but he never really found his form there, perhaps missing the support of Ortigoza and Mercier. Or perhaps the system didn’t suit him: playing as a second striker in a 4-4-2 is not the same as playing as an enganche.
That was a great night, but we shouldn’t be naïve. Argentinos also have a Barra, and in 2007 it had been responsible for an attack on the coach Ricardo Caruso at a petrol station five minutes from where I lived. It was alleged they were paid by directors who wanted Caruso out. Nothing was ever proved and the club president Luis Segura went on to become president of AFA and is a close friend of the president of the republic, Alberto Fernández. Whoever lay behind the assault, Caruso resigned the following day.
I returned to the UK not long after that and worked at a language school on Oxford Street before going out to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. A few weeks later, I covered both legs of the 2014 Libertadores final between Nacional of Paraguay and San Lorenzo. To my surprise I was the only European journalist present.
In the build-up, it was inevitable that many media outlets went for the 'miracle' angle on San Lorenzo's resurrection. Founded as a church team in 1908, they had been almost relegated two seasons earlier and were in severe financial difficulties, but ever since their most famous supporter, Pope Francis, blessed his boyhood team they had experienced a change in fortunes, winning the 2013 clausura. There were more earthly reasons for the upturn. The new board, led by Lammens and his vice-president, the TV show host Marcelo Tinelli, had invested significant money into the club.
The story of their opponents was no less remarkable. Until winning the Paraguayan championship in 2009, their first since 1946, Nacional were viewed as club stuck in the past, associated with old men sitting in bars, playing cards and reminiscing about the glory days of the 1930s and 40s, when Arsenio Erico came through their academy to make his debut at the age of 15 before heading for Independiente and becoming the all-time top scorer in the Argentinian league. But, when the trophies dried up for Nacional, so did the normal progression of allegiance from father to son. The joke was that their youngest fans were all 50 years old. There were no youths behind the goals, chanting and banging drums: recent generations had been lured away by another team of the Asunción distrcut of Barrio Obrero, the more fashionable and successful Cerro Porteño.
Nacional's modernised all-seater Estádio Arsenio Erico, with a reduced capacity of 10,000, was considered too small to host the first leg of the final, so it was played at Paraguay's Defensores del Chaco national stadium. Their achievement in being there was extraordinary. They had had no sudden injection of cash, but relied on players they had produced themselves, living up to their nickname, ‘the Academy’.
This sort of anomaly happens sometimes in the Libertadores, especially as the bigger clubs sold the players who had qualified them for the competition. That year, a ten-week break between the quarter- and semi-finals for the World Cup meant even more players than usual had departed. San Lorenzo and Nacional had the worst and second-worst records of the sides to make it through the groups.
As is the custom, San Lorenzo’s players were awoken at 4am on the day of the game by Nacional fans banging drums and letting off fireworks outside their hotel in Asunción. Police eventually dispersed the small crowd.
The first leg was predictably cagey. San Lorenzo had more of the ball, but when Ignacio Piatti on the left flank, Leandro Romagnoli, the playmaker, or the centre-forward Mauro Matos ventured towards the opposition's goal, it tended to be in a three v seven situation, with Ortigoza and Mercier not wishing to stray much beyond the halfway line. But a San Lorenzo goal did arrive after 65 minutes, through a volley from Matos. After that, San Lorenzo locked down.
A couple of substitutions changed the pattern. Nacional brought on Julio Santa Cruz, similar in height to his brother Roque, who played for Bayern and Manchester City, and went more direct. Then, with five minutes to go, Ortigoza, who had been running the game, limped off. San Lorenzo suddenly looked vulnerable and in the third minute of added time Cruz equalised, stabbing home a knock-down from a long ball.
"The only way they were going to score was with the long ball,” said a clearly frustrated Bauza, “and in the last ten minutes we kept giving the ball away. Ortigoza going off changed the game – he asked to come off for fear of making his injury worse."
In Argentina, demand for tickets for the second leg outstripped supply three times over. San Lorenzo were the only one of Argentina’s grandes never to have won the Libertadores. The stadium seemed dangerously overfilled and a public announcement that no flares should be let off was ignored.
San Lorenzo’s players were clearly nervous, whereas Nacional, away from home, seemed oddly uninhibited, attacking in a way they had never attempted in the first leg. In the first minute, Mercier uncharacteristically gave the ball away and from his mistake Nacional hit the post.
After half an hour of Nacional attacking, the crowd became subdued, tension seeping in, but then, inexplicably, the Nacional right-back Ramon Coronal handled the ball in the penalty area. Ortigoza, who had grown up taking penalties for money in betting games amongst adults on the dust pitches of his neighbourhood, stood confidently over the ball. "No, I wasn’t nervous at all," he said later. He placed the ball in the corner and ran to the crowd behind the net.
The goal had arrived against the run of play, but Nacional didn't have enough quality to break down San Lorenzo after that. Ortigoza's penalty proved the winner. Cue firecrackers, flags, noise… the celebrations in the Boedo district of Buenos Aires continued all night. The next evening the players, dressed in jeans and their San Lorenzo shirts, appeared with the giant Libertadores Cup on Tinelli's show, dancing with the models, while their host made jokes about Ortigoza needing an XXL shirt and how fleas “ice-skated for a dream” on Mercier's bald head (Skating for a Dream is a segment on another Tinelli programme). Earlier in the day, on another channel, Ortigoza's mother told stories about how at Argentinos Juniors all the youth players had the latest brand-name boots, but her kid had to make do with a tatty old pair handed down from his uncle.
And then Lammens, Tinelli, Bauza and Mercier took a plane to Rome to present the Cup to the Pope. It’s a strange alliance, Tinelli and the Pope, the conductor of a show that deals in base titillation and the head of the Catholic Church, but Argentinian football transcends such issues.My own memory of that night is watching and laughing upon the final whistle as most of the San Lorenzo players ran behind the goal and climbed up the wire-mesh fence that separates the fans from the pitch but Ortigoza, on his own, rather unglamorously clambered up one of the goals and sat on the crossbar, beaming from ear to ear, surveying the scene of his triumph.
Never go back, they say, but when I spotted in the small print that a police officer is allowed once in his career to take a sabbatical period of unpaid leave, there was no doubt at some point I would do it, and no doubt where I would go. Sitting on that bus after five years of dealing with the extremes of London, it felt that the time was right.
As the plane touched down on March 5, I was mainly looking forward to catching up with old friends, eating out and sunny weather rather than the football. I had it in my head that the quality of the Argentinian league had deteriorated – too fast and furious, less skilful, and besides you can never recapture those moments a second time. But back in my barrio when my old friend, the local waiter, told me Argentinos were at home on Friday evening I couldn't resist. They had been top of the league in November, but since Alberto Fernández, an Argentinos fan, had become president of the republic they hadn't won a game.
A decade may have passed, but it was comforting to find the same choripan seller outside the ground, the same family atmosphere and the same Bonnie Tyler and Culture Club tunes. The biggest change was that the players now come onto the pitch out of a huge Diego Maradona inflatable tunnel – they actually walk out from his chest, which is many things but mainly hilarious.
The football wasn't bad either, both teams playing it out from the back as Argentinos beat Rosario Central 2-1 in the last of their Superliga fixtures, meaning that they could finish no lower than joint third.
The following night, the 24-team Superliga reached its climax as Boca pinched the title at the last from River Plate. Three days later, and thanks to my friends the Boca Seniors, a group of septuagenarian club members I’d had known since they were in their fifties, I was able to attend Boca's Libertadores group-stage match at home to Deportivo Independiente Medellín of Colombia, which the crowd turned into a celebration of winning the league, 50,000 fans jumping up and down, waving their arms in unison. What struck me about the match, though, was how, just as he had in 2007, the coach Miguel Russo, back at the club at the age of 64, had clearly imposed his philosophy of play – that old school Argentinian 4-3-1-2 with Guillermo Fernández as the enganche.
Something happened that I hadn’t seen in years, certainly not in the Premier League. The holding midfielder Jorman Campuzano, in space on the halfway line, waited and Fernández came back to take the ball off him because the enganche wants to run the game. It was reminiscent of the days when Riquelme used to come back and take the ball off Fernando Gago or Ever Banega in Russo's previous Boca team.
A small detail, but one of hope for Boca and Argentinian football in general, was that among all the noise and colour and festivities, there was a noticeable space on the terrace behind one of the goals – the place where la Doce (Boca's main Barra) always bang their drums, do the arm thing and stare menacingly. They were on strike, I was told, because the new club leadership wouldn’t give them free tickets anymore. As a player, Riquelme had never celebrated goals at that end of the ground. But what was most positive was that in terms of noise, colour and atmosphere la Doce weren’t missed.
But the real treat for me had come the night before when I discovered that not only was Ortigoza still playing, for Estudiantes de Río Cuarto in the second division, but they were away at Ferrocarril Oeste, whose magnificent 112-year-old wooden stadium is the oldest in Argentina and just a 10-minute walk from my place, next to the Caballito railway station.
I was disappointed to find that one of the wooden stands was in the process of being demolished, to be replaced by a concrete one, although the main grandstand remains. It was clear that the Estudiantes players were under instruction to give the ball to Ortigoza, by then 35. Even in the pouring rain he was able to get plenty of spin on it as he sprayed trademark passes across the pitch. The podgy Paraguayan's skill stood out, as did his stomach, but his side lost 2-1, missing out on the opportunity to go top of the league in their promotion push.
I got soaked on the open wooden terrace, but I didn't care. I'd got my football mojo back. I’d had some lofty ideas about spending my sabbatical learning to play classical guitar, maybe trying to dance tango or studying Spanish to the point I can read Sabato or Cortázar, but after going to four games in five days, it was pretty obvious how the rest of my sabbatical was going to pan out.
But then the first case of coronavirus hit Argentina and we went into lockdown.
And that's where this piece was going to end, but one week into lockdown came a bizarre footnote that could only really have happened in football-obsessed Argentina. The President of the republic gave a live press conference, updating the country on the gravity of the coronavirus situation. He was asked by a journalist if he had any doubts with respect to the measures his government were taking.
This is how Alberto Fernandez responded: "When Argentinos Juniors were fighting against relegation the club hired Ricardo Caruso, and the fans and I didn't like the way the team played; they just launched centres to [Alejandro] Delorte who was a centre-forward that he had brought from Olimpo. Indeed I stopped going to the stadium. Finally, after Caruso, they hired Pipo Gorosito and the president of the club invited me to a dinner with him. I explained to Gorosito how I felt and he said something to me that I have always adopted: ‘If you do things right, it's very likely that the outcome will be good.’ From that moment I called it the Gorosito theory and I apply it to everything.”
It didn't take long for the media to get hold of Gorosito, who had become the manager of Tigre, and he was omnipresent on most news channels the next day, saying how proud he was to be mentioned by the president. Personally, I was heartened to see that Gorosito still sports the spectacular curly mullet that he's had throughout his whole career, always shaved at the sides above the ear, only it's now greying in patches, perfecting the Chris Waddle two-haircuts-in-one look.
Caruso's response was measured at first. He tweeted the journalist who had asked the President the question: "Ask him how he celebrated the two times I saved Argentinos from relegation." Later he addressed Fernández personally: "Señor Presidente, I support wholeheartedly the way you are dealing with the coronavirus, I applaud you. But that team you speak so highly of was put together by me, players that I brought to the club. Therefore I would like you to respect my work as I respect yours."
Caruso is a fiery, sweary coach who specialises in saving teams from relegation, a feat he's managed to pull off six times. He did sign Mercier for Argentinos after saving them from relegation in 2007 and paired him with Ortigoza, but he resigned six games into the following season after the assault at the petrol station.
Gorosito's theory was discussed and debated on all the news programmes the following day, so there we were, in the middle of the most serious pandemic the modern world has experienced, 9pm prime-time on the Crónica news channel, the most viewed channel in the country, and the two newscasters were discussing the merits of Néstor Ortigoza and his style of play. "He's fat, he's round…”