When Ariel Arnaldo “el burrito” Ortega made his explosive impact in River Plate’s first team in 1992, he was immediately regarded as a typical product of the club’s youth policy. He combined the essential blend of outstanding technique, skill, and flair that had characterized the likes of other illustrious products of the River “school of football” such as Labruna, Di Stefano, Moreno, Loustau, Sívori, Onega, Alonso, and many others. Plus, his “gambeta” was regarded as the most impressive since the mid-eighties appearance of Claudio Caniggia in River’s line-up. His memorable performances in both of River’s successive triumphs against Boca at the latter’s Bombonera stadium during 1994 immortalized him as a hero of the fans.
By that time Ortega was part of a tremendously powerful forward line that also included the likes of the 34 year old Uruguayan and former River super-idol Enzo Francescoli, back from a long sojourn in France and Italy, and the very promising centrefoward Hernán Crespo. These forwards were assisted from midfield by two other youngsters that had also just broken into the first team from the youth ranks: the pint-sized Marcelo “el muñeco” Gallardo, tremendously skillful number ten, and Matías Almeyda, a very aggressive and versatile defensive midfield player. This team was coached by former River glories such as Daniel Passarella and “el tolo” Gallego, who eventually left River to become part of the Argentine national team staff. They were replaced by Ramón “el pelado” Díaz another River Plate legend.
Under Díaz’s guidance River won the 1996 Libertadores Cup and also the Apertura tournament during that same year. After this success, Ortega was transferred to Valencia. Although he played alongside Romario there, he never really adapted to Spanish football and left to the Italian Serie A to join Sampdoria a year later. In spite of the fact that this team was relegated during his first season there, “el burrito” managed to outshine the rest of that team, alongside the team’s goalscoring number nine Vincenzo Montella, and was sold to the then high riding Parma outfit. Here, despite teaming up with Crespo again, Ortega seriously went off the boil in the second half of the season and, after a succession of interminable rows with coach Malesani, decided to head back to his beloved River in 2000. His arrival created a commotion at the club where he began his first steps as a professional footballer, as he linked up with two new prodigies of the club’s youth policy, Aimar and Saviola.
Although River produced some delightful football with the “cuatro fantásticos”, the fourth in contention being the Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel, the team failed to pick up a trophy during “el burrito’s” first two years back home. However, Aimar and Saviola, who both left to play in Spain by 2001, declared to have profited enormously as a result of playing alongside Ortega. By 2002, Ortega was linking up with two new promises that had been promoted to the first team, largely as a consequence of Aimar and Saviola’s departures: attacking midfielder Andrés D’alessandro and centrefoward Fernando Cavenaghi. With this new powerful attacking trio, plus the invaluable assistance of other quality players such as Demichelis, Coudet and Cambiasso, River won the Clausura of 2002 playing some delightful attacking football.
It was clear that “el burrito” had become a referent for the young skillful players emerging from River’s junior ranks. Ortega departed from River again after playing for the national team in the 2002 World Cup, and began a most traumatic experience playing for Turkey’s Galatasaray. In the mean time, however, River had clearly profited with the maturity acquired by Ortega’s latest “disciple” D’alessandro the main commander of the team that won the Clausura again in 2003 alongside Cavenaghi, who in turn became the main referent, after D’alessandro was sold to Germany that same year, when River clinched yet another Clausura trophy in 2004. It was precisely at the end of that season that Ortega returned to Argentina, after his nightmarish Turkish experience that cost him a two year FIFA suspension for breach of contract, but this time to join Rosario club Newels Old Boys.
It would only be a matter of time, however, for Ortega to rejoin River for a second time. After a year and a half at Newels, where he obtained an Apertura trophy under the guidance of former coach Gallego, the man who promoted him to River’s first team in the early nineties, Passarella, was back at River eager to reunite Ortega with Gallardo, who had returned to River in 2003. In mid-2006, Passarella finally achieved this ambition but would rapidly be confronted by Ortega’s ever increasing personal problems, especially related with his drinking. Somehow “el burrito” managed to sustain himself after being in and out of the team during his first year, and produced some outstanding personal performances in the second half of 2007, especially in a 2-0 victory against Boca.
Nevertheless, Ortega’s impressive form was not enough to elevate River to the top level, and Passarella received the sack at the end of 2007. By the time Cholo Simeone took over as coach at the beginning of the following year, a diminutive and very frail looking offensive midfielder had erupted into the first team and would rapidly begin to score goals by way of his dribbling skill and powerful shots. The nineteen year old Diego Buonanotte proved to be a perfect new “compadre” for Ortega and, after traumatic defeats against Boca in the league and San Lorenzo in the Libertadores cup, these two players enabled River to clinch the Clausura league after four years without winning trophies of any sort. A new “burrito” disciple had yet again emerged.