Fresh from their last-gasp 3-2 win over Costa Rica in the Round of 16 here at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2011, the dressing room of host nation Colombia was the scene of joyous celebrations, with players and coaching staff all singing and dancing to salsa rhythms. All except attacking midfielder Michael Ortega and supremo Eduardo Lara, who could be seen locked deep in serious conversation.
Problems between the gifted schemer and his coach? Not in the slightest, as Los Cafeteros’ creator-in-chief, currently plying his trade for Mexican club Atlas, was simply taking the earliest opportunity available to tell his boss everything he knew about El Tri – Colombia’s quarter-final opponents.
“I went and spoke to the gaffer as soon as I found out they’d got through too, because I know everything about them,” Ortega revealed to FIFA.com. “Some of my Atlas team-mates are in this Mexico squad and I’ve played against the others in the first division.
“The Mexican lads run hard, they’re committed and they’re battlers,” continued the 20-year-old, who started out in the youth system at homeland outfit Deportivo Cali, where he made his first-team debut at 16. “They never give up and they attack very quickly, so to beat them we’ll have to be even more committed and play better football than them. It’s going to be a tough game, even though we’ve got the fans behind us,” added the No8, who has been at Atlas since 2010.
Saturday 13 August’s clash in Bogota is therefore sure to be special for the Colombian midfield man, given three of his club-mates are in Los Aztecas’ squad. “Cesar Ibanez is my best friend, though I’ve not wanted to speak to him since I got here – so I don’t give anything away. I’m sure we’ll speak a bit out on the pitch, but I know how good our team are and I’m willing to bet him anything he likes (that Colombia will win),” said Ortega, with a broad grin.
A real character in Los Cafeteros’ camp, largely thanks to his sense of humour and restless energy, Ortega is the squad’s main prank-player and occasionally its resident DJ: “Every time I get the chance I put some salsa music on, but mainly so I don’t have to listen to Pedro Franco’s heavy metal!”
On the pitch, however, it is the youngster’s ability to create goalscoring chances for his team-mates that stands him out from the crowd. “I enjoy laying on an assist as much as scoring a goal, even though people only tend to remember the scorer,” he continued. “It’d be great if assists got more recognition too, because some people don’t notice them and that can make things difficult at times.”
Proof of Ortega’s near-surgical passing precision is backed up by his stats. He has so far laid on one goal for Jose Valencia and three for Luis Muriel, including a sublime back-heeled assist in the hosts’ 4-1 opening win over France. “I want to help him finish as the tournament’s top scorer, and he owes me a few already,” said Ortega with a wink. “But this is a team, a family, and when we win everybody’s happy. That’s why I’ll keep putting as many lads through on goal as I possibly can.”
Primarily used as a striker in the early years of his climb up the footballing ladder, a canny coach later decided Ortega’s qualities were best deployed in a more withdrawn role. “He wanted to better exploit my reading of the game, while I also wasn’t as quick as I used to be,” said the player. “Fortunately I still think just as quickly, which is more important.”
Anyone who has seen him in action will agree, while his style of play could barely be more fitting for a fervent admirer of that most elegant of string-pullers: Boca Juniors’ Juan Roman Riquelme. “He’s a cut above everybody else. It’s thanks to him that the No10 role is still around, that it hasn't disappeared,” he said, before giving his verdict on another iconic playmaker in Carlos Valderrama. “Well, El Pibe is something else too, he’s a different class. He’s like a God to us – he’ll always be Colombia’s No10.”
Riquelme, in particular, is also known for weighing in with important goals, something Ortega has yet to match at this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup. “If I score against them they’ll want to kill me when I get back!” joked the player, when quizzed on how it would feel were his first strike to come against Mexico. “But they know that here we’re playing for the pride and happiness of the Colombian people. This is a World Cup and they’d forgive me.
“Here we play with our hearts,” added Ortega, before signing off by giving his ultimate aim for the rest of the competition. “I want us to become world champions and make history in this jersey. All I want is to make the Colombian people happy.”