For fans of Argentina’s San Lorenzo de Almagro, the penalty routine is now as familiar as it is enjoyable. Their No20 stands at the edge of the area, almost directly behind the ball as he waits for the referee’s whistle. He starts with a couple of measured steps, then accelerates, before checking his run at the last possible second. After that, it is a just a matter of celebrating as Nestor Ortigoza finds the net once again.
Alongside Juan Mercier, Ortigoza forms the midfield engine of the reigning Copa Libertadores champions. Yet the 30-year-old is most famous in South America for a rare talent that has made him almost infallible from the penalty spot – as 26 goals from 27 attempts can attest. Curiously, it is a talent he honed not at Argentinos Juniors, where he played between the age of nine and 26, or any other training academy, but in clandestine penalty competitions near his childhood home in the western suburbs of Buenos Aires.
“As a young boy, my uncle Manuel used to bring me to penalty competitions on a Friday night. They’d run from 10pm until 6am the following morning, and people would play for money,” he recounted to FIFA.com. “For a year and a half, I stood behind my uncle and watched him take them. Later I’d go out in the streets and take aim at the trees until I started participating myself. That’s where I grasped that trick. If you wanted to eat, pay for transport or buy yourself some clothes, you simply had to win.”
That pressure to prosper was the perfect training ground for the demands of modern professional football, as the player explained. “People do start to study your routine and that makes things harder. That said, I’ve never changed my technique. I wait until the last minute for the keeper to move, but if he doesn’t, I blast it into one of the corners. I only decide at the moment of kicking, so it requires very good coordination. It’s hard to switch sides when you’re a stride away from the ball, but it’s something I’m now able to do.”
Two penalties, two stories
On the night of 13 August 2014, the prize for handling the pressure from 12 yards turned out to be the Copa Libertadores, a title San Lorenzo coveted like no other. Up against Nacional of Paraguay, the score was 0-0 in the return leg (and tied on aggregate) when the Argentinian club were awarded a penalty.
Ortigoza takes up the story: “When I grabbed the ball, I started to look around. There was mayhem in the ground but I did what I always do. The Nacional keeper was acting like he was ready for me, but that was always going to be very difficult for him. He looked really nervous so I slowed things down and kept saying to myself ‘I’m the best, I’m the best’. I didn’t want to risk hitting a post or the crossbar, so I waited, playing on his anxiety. I knew he would move before I hit it, and that’s what he did.”
The scenario could hardly have been more different on the evening of 1 July 2012. “That was the most difficult,” recalled the midfielder with no little relish. San Lorenzo were 1-0 down to Instituto de Cordoba and playing for their top-flight status. “The public were hurling insults at us and our self-esteem was low.
"As I picked up the ball, I noticed a young boy and his father praying to the heavens with tears in their eyes. I remember saying to myself, ‘do you realise what’s at stake here?’ Of course, it was about whether or not we’d drop into the second division, but I like that kind of pressure and challenge. I feel comfortable and thrive on it.”
Unsurprisingly then, the man affectionately known as Johnny stuck it in the corner to start a resurgence in the club’s fortunes that will see them line up next month at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco.
And while that prestigious tournament may not be illuminated by a spot-kick from this Argentina-born Paraguay international, who played for La Albirroja at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, it will surely witness him pulling the strings in an advanced midfield role and imposing himself, regardless of the opposition.
“I’d love to face Real Madrid because everyone’s talking about them. We’re seen as making up the numbers but that’s not a role I’m interested in. We’re not going there to see the sights or to be anyone’s sparring partner. Those [Madrid] players can be like robots, but they can make mistakes too. From a distance they are like machines, but when the ball starts rolling, I am the best. Me and my team-mates.”
Though you might think it from his words, there is not a hint of arrogance in Ortigoza’s tone. His words are those of a leader convinced that the only way to play – and win – is to believe you are the best, just as he did in those late-night shoot-outs as a boy. To him, it matters not that San Lorenzo are down in 14th place in Argentina’s Torneo Transicion with just six wins from 17 attempts, so long as they play the way they know how.
“Right now, we’re struggling to find a style but we’ll arrive in good shape. What we do have is the character of Argentinian players, who are hard to beat. Remember how Barcelona barely got past Estudiantes [at the 2009 edition, winning 2-1 after extra time]. That’s how you do it! People always talk about Barcelona, Real Madrid… well we’re good too. We’re going to be up to the task and in contention,” he concluded.