The world at Ortega's feet

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:34 PM ET

There was a time when Ariel Ortega was touted as a successor to Diego Maradona.

Small in stature, a dazzling dribbler with the ability to win games on his own, the native of Jujuy, in northern Argentina, literally had the world at his feet.

But as is the case so often with extraordinary talents, Ortega struggled to control his demons and instead of being placed up on a pedestal with his idol, he became a poster boy for unachieved potential.

Last night the 35-year-old striker was making his latest comeback at Commonwealth Stadium of all places. And by all indications, it appears he's well on the road to recovery, scoring a mesmerizing goal as River Plate defeated Everton of the English Premier League by a score of 1-0 in front of an announced crowd of 15,800.

"It means a lot for us to have him back," said River Plate striker Rodrigo Archubi. "In my case, having him as my striking partner is a great honour, considering I looked up to him when I was younger."

It was Ortega's first game back with the giants of Argentine soccer since returning from an exile to a second-tier team that included weekly trips to an alcohol treatment centre in neighbouring Chile.

The goal last night showcased Ortega's talent.

He picked up the ball 35 yards from the Everton net, and blew around defender Joleon Lescott. As he approached the penalty area, Ortega spotted goalkeeper Carlo Nash off his line and chipped the ball over his head into the top corner of the net.

"It showcased all that he can do," Archubi said. "It was great for him. He's personally helping lift the team to a new level.

"He played very well, he got around the field very well, was making plays and it helps everyone having a player like that on our team."

Ortega started his professional career with River Plate in 1991. He spent six seasons with the Millionaires before being sold to Valencia of the Spanish League, where he played for two years before moving on to Italy.

Named to the Argentine national team in 1993 at 19, Ortega made his World Cup debut the following year in the U.S., playing alongside Maradona.

Argentina crashed out of that tournament after Maradona was kicked out of the event for using the stimulant ephedrine. Four years later Ortega was expected to take the torch from Maradona and lead Argentina to a World Cup triumph in France. However, his tournament ended in disgrace when he was sent off in a quarterfinal for a head butt on Dutch goaltender Edwin van der Sar.

Within two years of that incident, Ortega was back in Buenos Aries, helping River Plate win the league title.

His inspired play got him a lucrative offer from Fenerbahce of Turkey, but his tenure only lasted 14 games before he walked out on the club and was subsequently suspended by FIFA for over a year for breach of contract.

He eventually returned to Argentina to play with Newell's Old Boys, helping them win a league title before his alcohol problems caught up with him again and he was sent away to play in the Argentine second division.

"Having him back means a lot to us," said River Plate goaltender Mario Daniel Vega. "That was a tough game tonight against Everton and to be able to have a leader like that on the field is important. He's a great a motivation for the whole team."

Even his opponents were impressed.

"He's a player that I have admired for a long time," said Everton striker Tim Cahill. "You can see that he still hasn't lost it. It was just great to have a chance to play against him."

DEREK.VANDIEST@SUNMEDIA.CA


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