Paraguay's not-so-secret weapon
As he takes up his position outside the box, square on with the ball, there is always the split-second doubt. Maybe this will be the one.
And as Néstor Ortigoza begins his trademark run-up for a penalty kick, as he trots up to the ball – a long run not to gather speed but to size-up the`keeper – there is that fleeting thought. Will he miss? Can he miss?
How will he react when he does finally miss?
But Ortigoza does not miss penalties. He boasts a 100 percent strike rate in club football in Argentina, where he was born and bred, and where he plays his football. His record stands at 15 goals from 15 penalties. Finding the net in the penalty shoot-outs for Paraguay this Copa America has extended that formidable record.
Yet Ortigoza’s success rate is not based on spreadsheets and analyzing goalkeepers’ form, or a discrete dissection of his adversary's strengths and weaknesses. There is no crib sheet. There's certainly no formula. He says he will never reveal how he does it, although given his story, his secret to scoring spot kicks is not one that every player can copy.
As a youngster, Ortigoza played in the local potreros – those dusty football pitches in underprivileged neighborhoods that are part of Argentine football’s mythology. At first, like thousands of youngsters across the country, he would take part in games, in between trying to earn a few extra pesos for the family. In Ortigoza's case, he would ride the trains going in and out of Buenos Aires selling notebooks to commuters to earn some money.
Into his late teens, he started to take part in penalty tournaments. As he told Olé, they would start at around 9 p.m. on Friday and often last till sunrise the next day. These shoot-outs were sudden-death marathons: $2 to enter, miss one and you were out. The winner could take up to $300. Ortigoza was often the last man standing and took the winnings home.
Even as Ortigoza graduated from the youth teams into the first team at Argentinos Juniors, he still took part in games for money. His contract paid little. He would play at the weekend, having trained and played with his club all week, for an extra $150. These were tough, lawless matches, sometimes with as much as $2,500 at stake.
On promoting Ortigoza to the first team, his coach at Argentinos Juniors, Ricardo Caruso Lombardi, told him to make a decision over his career - the potrero or the profession. Caruso also leaned on the board to improve their young midfielder’s contract and hold onto the player. Ortigoza chose the profession, but never forgot his upbringing.
Now, Ortigoza is the idol of many of the Argentinos Juniors youth team players. He moved on to San Lorenzo a year ago, but not without having won the first league title at the club since the mid-80s. Together with Juan Mercier in the centre of midfield, Ortigoza was the engine behind Claudio Borghi’s title winning side in 2010.
For Ortigoza to have won the respect of the youngsters coming through the ranks - at a club that brought through the likes of Juan Román Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso, Fernando Redondo, and whose most famous son has the club’s ground named after him (Argentinos play at the Estadio Diego Maradona) - speaks highly about his ability and his character.
With quick feet and a powerful gait, he is a complete midfielder. With excellent passing and good vision, he does not suffer fools gladly. He is just as likely to power opponents off the ball, and at times take it further. Few were surprised to see him at the center of the brawl with Venezuela after the semi-final in Mendoza.
He was on the verge of making his international debut with Argentina when Diego Maradona was coach, but the friendly match was cancelled at the very last minute. Born to an Argentine mother and Paraguayan father in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the door was open for Gerardo Martino to call up Ortigoza to join the fellow Argentine-born players Lucas Barrios and Jonathan Santana in the Paraguay squad.
Featuring in just one match at last year's World Cup, Ortigoza has missed just one game for Paraguay in this Copa America. Martino has placed much of the responsibility in the center of midfield on his hunched shoulders, but with the way Paraguay’s run has gone, Ortigoza is also a not-so-secret weapon come the end of extra time.