The modern day Colombian soccer player is increasingly appreciated in markets abroad. Major League Soccer has made Colombia one of its favourite places to restock or reload their franchises. Argentina is a launching pad where several Colombian players have achieved fame and idolatry. In Brazil, players like Freddy Rincón and Victor Aristízabal are considered as individuals synonymous with their clubs at a time before it became hip to start signing Argentines.
Of course, let's not forget the legacy left behind by Carlos Valderrama and the generation of players that kicked off the most successful, yet controversial epoch in the country's footballing history. But through all the talk of who should be considered the greatest Colombian player of all time, there is one name that seems to have been lost in the mix when 'El Pibe', 'El Tigre', Faustino Asprilla and others are mentioned.
"If Willington Ortíz would have played in the World Cup in Italy, he would have been the king of world football"- Efraín "Caimán" Sánchez
‘El Viejo Willy’ (Old Willy) was, and still is in the eyes of many Colombians, one of the greatest South American players ever. European sides courted him, and the all-star team that was the New York Cosmos wanted him alongside Chinaglia and Cabañas to help galvanize an XI that had saw Pelé, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto go into definite retirement.
Pure improvisation. Constant and fluid movement. Ambidextrous. Ortiz played as if he had choreographed everything prior to a match. His style was a direct reflection of how he lived and how the city of Cali’s liveliness and desire to celebrate at the drop of a hat was clearly symbolized. Ortíz once said, "In order to live in Cali, you have to know how to dance." The former Millonarios star Arturo Segovia agreed, suggesting that the only other player he had seen do the things that Ortíz did was Pelé; “It was as if he was dancing with the ball at his feet.”
Ortiz was a mixed bag of skills and talent that very few have seen in a Colombian player before or since. His ability to dribble as if the ball was tied to both feet combined with his pace and a penchant for finding the net were vital as he helped Deportivo Cali and América de Cali achieve success during his heyday. His capacity to maintain possession and shrug off defenders made him one of the toughest players in the game to stop.
Willington Ortiz was born in the Pacific city of Tumaco; a city which borders Ecuador and lies near the Pacific coast of Colombia. Tumaco is one of the more diverse cities in Colombia when it comes to flora and fauna; unfortunately it is also a city that has suffered the armed conflicts that have raged in the country for generations.
Ortiz was a youngster that would first start to make a name for himself with the Nariño Select side and was swiftly taken to Bogota to sign for Millonarios as a teenager. He would score on his debut in 1971 as the Embajadores defeated Brazilian side Internacional, and would quickly assert himself in the starting line up of a club that would end up winning the league title in 1972; the first of two league titles and two semi-final appearances in the Copa Libertadores for Ortiz. His performances would earn him a spot in the 1972 Olympic team where he would have the chance to play against eventual gold medal winners Kazimierz Deyna and Gregorz Lato of Poland. A year later, Ortiz would make his senior debut for Colombia in a friendly against Germany.
During the 1970’s and 80’s, Colombian football was, according to experts, 'held back' in favour of tactical organisation and a more defensive style. It was an era when the influence of Osvaldo Zubeldía's Estudiantes took hold, with future national coach and Zubeldía disciple Carlos Bilardo really putting the shackles on the individual capabilities of players. The defensive system was not without some success, and it was only fate that left the Colombians on the verge of World Cup qualification in 1974 when Ortiz’s goal would be the difference in a qualifier against Uruguay. However the Charrúas would defeat Ecuador 4-0 in a match that many in Colombia believed was fixed. Los Cafeteros, despite going undefeated in group play, would go down to Uruguay on goal difference, leaving them to watch the finals on television.
In 1975, Colombia would reach the final of the Copa América after beating Uruguay in the semis 3-1 on aggregate. That edition of the continental tournament was played home and away with no host nation. A Peru side featuring Teófilo Cubillas would end up defeating Colombia after they played a three match series in Bogota, Lima and, finally, Caracas.
After his seven seasons in Bogota, Ortiz would make the move to Deportivo Cali, where he was sold for the then-scandalous sum of $13 million pesos (US$7,219 in the modern currency exchange). Today, Cali fans still recall the outstanding match Ortiz played against River Plate in Buenos Aires when Los Azucareros won 2-1at El Monumental in the Copa Libertadores. While his time would be brief in the green of Cali, it would be memorable for Azucarero fans. His performance, in 1981, against a team that was the nucleus for the World Cup-winning side, left many in awe of his skills. Few gave Cali much of a chance - throughout their history an away match against River meant an automatic loss. Facing up to Fillol, Passarella, Tarantini, Gallego, Housemann, Alonso and Merlo amongst others in that squad, meant that the odds were against the team from Colombia. In the game itself, Ortíz’s skills had left River unbalanced and an intelligent tactical plan kept things on even terms. With a burst into space, Ortiz received the ball while travelling at full tilt, leaving Alberto Tarantini for dead. He cut towards the middle, leaving Ubaldo Fillol on his knees before scoring the eventual game-winning goal. Ortiz was at his prime and was doing it on South American football’s biggest stage.
With an international stage ready for Ortiz, disappointment arrived in 1983 when Colombian president Belisario Betancur decided that the country would not be fit to host the 1986 World Cup. Betancur highlighted that many individuals were without a home or without education, and money would be used to tend these issues before hosting a sporting event (as a side note, the money allocated to build homes and schools back in the 80's have still not been accounted for and those homes and schools have not been built).
At club level, Willington would win various titles domestically, but would come up short in the Copa Libertadores. In the 1980’s Ortíz was still the most functional and consistent player in the country, even if he was already in the latter stages of his career. He continued to shine at Deportivo Cali alongside Ricardo Gareca, Roberto Cabañas, Julio César Falcioni, Juan Manuel Battaglia and a young Antony D'Avila, but his 1983 move the other side of Cali caused a great deal of displeasure in the city. Despite the controversy of his switch, América de Cali fans rejoiced as Ortiz and Battaglia combined for forty goals in their first year together as the Red Devils won the second of five consecutive league titles.
With the curtain closing on hi career, Ortiz suffered heartbreak in the 1987 Copa Libertadores final. With their goalkeeper Julio César Falcioni (now coach at Boca Juniors) already celebrating in the 119th minute, América were seconds away from winning their first title. The deal was done and Colombia was at the cusp of seeing one of its own win the precious cup for the first time. In a span of seconds however, the cheers of América fans seeing their side gain a 3-2 aggregate lead - after 300 minutes of play in Cali and Montevideo - would go by the wayside as Diego Aguirre’s late, late strike ensured that Peñarol would clinch their fifth cup in the final seven seconds of the third match played at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago. At the age of 35, it was a crushing blow for Ortiz and it would be the last time he would get that close to an international title. He retired a year later.
Of course, recognition and reverence have not come to Ortiz since retiring. When Millonarios were searching for a new coach in 2009, Ortíz was considered to take over the vacancy. However, the administration of Millonarios insisted very publically on seeing Ortiz’s resume in order to look at his qualifications. It was a tremendous insult to a player that was considered by many to be the greatest Colombian player to have ever worn the Embajadores jersey.
Ortíz was also involved in politics and, in 1989, won a seat in the Colombian House of Representatives, although he would be mired in many controversies which would leave him on the verge of losing his seat
Despite the controversy, The Old Man of Colombian Football was one that really took the game to a new level in his country. Sadly, Ortiz walked away from football before he was able to fulfil the crowning achievement of his career - a World Cup appearance. In 1990, many thought that, even at 38, he would have been a major player for Colombia at a tournament in which Roger Milla proved age was not an issue.
Ortiz’s legacy within Colombian football was, and is, ubiquitous. Look at videos from his playing days and also look at the top Colombian players of the past three generations. They have many of his qualities as well as that true joy to play the game that he demonstrated on every occasion. He might have not have enjoyed the benefits that several other players received after him, but Ortiz was the star that blazed a trail for the Valderramas, Asprillas and Falcaos of this world to follow.
“Willington Ortíz was and is important to Colombian football and if he would have played abroad he would have been more a more transcendent figure. It should be made clear that Willington Ortíz meant to the Colombian national team that I coached the same that Diego Maradona meant to Argentina.”- Carlos Bilardo
Juan Arango is a bilingual play-by-play announcer as well as a writer based out of Miami that covers various leagues around the world. He is also co-host of the Mad About Fútbol Show. You can follow him on Twitter.