The New Old Maradona

'The new Diego' - perhaps the biggest curse a player from Argentina can receive. Welcome to IBWM Ryan Hubbard.

Recently, I came across my collection of Corinthian Pro Stars figurines tucked away in my attic. Opening the bag I came across some of the best players of my childhood.

There was Sammer, Ronaldo (The Original Brazilian), Batistuta, Zidane. There was even Steve Howey in his England shirt.

But then there was another player who was a regular pick in my playground fantasy teams. A player who in the last ten years had fell off of my radar. One of the first players described as “The New Maradona” – before Leo Messi was out of nappies – Ariel Ortega had the world at his feet.

Drafted into Alfio Basile’s 1994 World Cup Squad as a 20-year old, he was viewed as the potential replacement for Diego. Ortega made his first start for the national team in the “Round-of-16″ game with Romania after Maradona was sent home in disgrace after failing a drug test. His presence though, failed to stop Argentina from being eliminated from the tournament.

The France 98 tournament became his first as a major name. Ortega was given the coveted Number 10 shirt after impressing many with his performances at River Plate, and then after his relocation to Southern Spain with Valencia. But by this time, Ariel was also showing that, despite his obvious skill, there was another side to his game.

His lack of discipline manifested itself in the Quarter-Final tie with the Netherlands, where after a dive in the Dutch penalty area he was confronted by Edwin van der Sar. Before the referee could give him a caution, Ortega lashed out at the goalkeeper with a headbutt, earning him a straight red card. Shortly after, Dennis Bergkamp scored the winner to eliminate Argentina.

Despite his temperament, Ariel followed in the footsteps of his predecessor by moving to Italy. A 23 billion Lira (£8.5million) fee took him first to Sampdoria, and then after relegation in his first season, a slightly higher fee took him to Parma. But after three goals in 18 appearances for “i Gialloblu”, he was sold back to River Plate in the summer of 2000 to raise money that Parma owed Lazio for the transfer of fellow countryman Hernan Crespo. Effectively, Ortega fell off of the radar of many European fans.

However, a good spell back in his home country (23 goals in 56 games) meant that clubs in Europe were beginning to take notice of Ortega again, and 2002 saw him transfer to Turkey to play with Fenerbahçe.

After 14 games and 5 goals, April 2003 saw Fenerbahçe file a complaint with FIFA after Ortega failed to return from International duty after a friendly game in Amsterdam, which proved to be his final game for his country. The following enquiry found him guilty of breaching his contract, and as well as a 4-month ban, Ortega was required to pay Fenerbahçe a sum of $11 million USD.

His ban ended in early 2004, but by then he was again drawing comparisons with El Diego. Unfortunately though, this time it was for the wrong reasons.

A return to River Plate in early 2006 after 2 years at Newell’s Old Boys followed, but Ortega never really rediscovered the form which had earlier earned him his tag as Argentina’s best prospect. In the summer of the same year it was announced that Ortega had entered rehabilitation for alcoholism.

Over the following years, Ortega re-entered rehab on numerous occasions, and last year he was loaned out to Argentine Second Division side Independiente Rivadavia with a clause in his contract that he twice-weekly attended a treatment centre for alcoholics.

With the 36-year old’s career slowly coming to an end, 2010 brought a fitting piece of irony as Ortega was given a second chance by the Great One himself. Maradona included Ariel in his National Team starting line-up for a friendly game against Haiti.

Much like his predecessor, he had been offered another chance. The comparisons with Maradona bestowed upon him as a young footballer, had stuck with Ariel throughout his career, however as his career progressed it seemed that he had more in common with Diego than just the skills and trickery.

Ryan can be found on twitter here & his own blog can be viewed here. Header image credit goes to James FJ Rooney