Nestor Ortigoza's penalty taking skills will be missed at the Copa America
For Nestor Ortigoza, taking a penalty kick is like a trip back in time.
There he is, back in his teenage years in the Merlo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, standing among 99 others at 10 o'clock at night. It's quite simple: You score your penalty, you stay in the game -- a penalty knockout competition involving high stakes that will last until 5am or 6am. And if you are the last one standing, you get money so you can eat the next week.
"We played for money. It was to be able to eat, to buy clothes. I had to win," recalled Ortigoza in a phone conversation with ESPN FC.
It's all part of what makes this 31-year-old midfielder, the best penalty taker in the Americas.
It's also what makes the hamstring injury he sustained while playing for his club, Argentina's San Lorenzo, in a 1-1 draw vs. Banfield on Sunday, so heartbreaking. The injury will force Ortigoza to miss the Copa America, and in a tournament where the margins for error are thin, it could make all the difference for Paraguay.
The son of a Paraguayan father and an Argentine mother, young Ortigoza would go with his uncle to watch the penalty competitions before eventually joining in himself. "I practiced first aiming at trees and hitting the ball hard right inside the tree as if it were the post," he explained.
But there was enough promise as an all-around footballer to be signed as a 20-year-old in 2004 by Argentinos Juniors, the same club that introduced Diego Maradona, Fernando Redondo and Juan Roman Riquelme to the footballing world. Realizing that he was not part of Maradona's plans for Argentina's 2010 World Cup team, Ortigoza opted to play for Paraguay and was part of Gerardo Martino's Guarani squad that nearly shocked winners Spain in the quarterfinals.
Ortigoza's penalty-taking exploits began in 2007, his first conversion from the spot coming in a Clausura match that season against Colon de Santa Fe. By the time he moved in early 2011 to San Lorenzo, the streak was at 16 and would rise to 19 over the course of the next year.
"When I take a penalty, I always feel calm. Pressure was when I had to make a penalty so I could eat. That helps me today. I have nothing but confidence in myself. I know I am better than the goalkeeper," says Ortigoza.
Then, the unthinkable. 2012 Clausura. San Lorenzo vs. Godoy Cruz. Step forward, Nelson Ibanez.
"He moved at the very last moment possible and saved. That was it," he said of the Godoy Cruz goalkeeper who dove to his left to deny Ortigoza. Fortunately for Ortigoza, San Lorenzo still won the match 3-0.
There is nothing earth-shattering about Ortigoza's technique. The power is in its simplicity and its execution. All those years thumping balls toward trees and playing for money has translated to a build-up that he repeats for every spot kick. It starts outside the area. In a straight run-up to the ball, he slows midway before reverting back to a charge that ends with a powerful side-footed shot that almost always goes right inside either post.
Officially, he stands at 32 conversions out of 34 attempts. Ironically, his most recent, last month against rivals Huracan, was a miss. "The goalkeeper didn't save it. I hit the crossbar," reminded Ortigoza. "It just got up on me."
There are two penalties that stand out, coming at both ends of the footballing spectrum, yet inescapably intertwined.
Back to the 2012 Clausura. It was a miserable season for San Lorenzo, with the pall of relegation hovering over the club. They were in a relegation playoff against Instituto, a similar situation in which giants River Plate found themselves the year before. In the second leg of River's relegation playoff versus Belgrano, Mariano Pavone missed a second half penalty that condemned River's second division fate. Nearly 365 days later, history looked like it might repeat itself. San Lorenzo's first division life hung on a second-half Ortigoza penalty.
"It's the most pressure I have ever felt in my career. We had played poorly that season and were just a step away from being relegated. Everything depended on that kick," Ortigoza said.
It was never in doubt. Ortigoza fired home, San Lorenzo stayed up and a year later took top honors in the 2013 Inicial. That earned El Ciclon a berth in the 2014 Copa Libertadores. After squeaking into the knockout round, San Lorenzo rode a hot streak into the final against Nacional of Paraguay and after a 1-1 draw in the first leg, fate had it that Ortigoza would once again be a hero: 0-0, 35th minute, handball in the Nacional penalty area.
"If the relegation playoff penalty was the most pressure I ever felt, the Copa Libertadores final was the one that forever changed my life," Ortigoza said. The penalty was as pure as they come. 1-0 to San Lorenzo, which is how it ended. Avoiding starvation, helping a club survive relegation and winning a continental championship. These are the fruits of Ortigoza's labor.
And now Ortigoza's Paraguayan teammates will set out for the United States to play in the Copa America next month. The U.S. awaits on matchday three of Group A. Paraguay's chances of reaching the quarterfinals could very well hinge on that match. It might come down to the slimmest of margins. Like a penalty. And in the cruel world of football, Ortigoza won't be there to take it.
Paraguay will hope Ortigoza's pre-injury words don't haunt them.
"I have every confidence I would score.... If the coach decides that I take it."
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .