4 minutes read

The General who took up boxing lessons as a kid: Otamendi delivers excellent leadership for Argentina at Qatar 2022

As a kid, Nicolas Otamendi loved football so much, that he had to spend hours commuting to where his team, Vélez Sarsfield, held the training sessions. It meant taking a well-prepared lunch in a box in his backpack from his mother Silvia, changing four buses and walking another two kilometres, but the small Nicolas loved every second of it.

Born in Buenos Aires, Otamendi knew that coming from a working-class family, his passion for football will going to make everything better. It did not matter that he needed to lose plenty of time on the way to the Olympic village in Ituzaingó, where he kicked the ball.

“Then, to go to Vélez we took three buses. First the 721 to Panamericana, then the 365 to San Miguel and finally, the 169. There we would get off and walk eight blocks to the Olympic Village. It was more than two hours of travel,” said his mother, Silvia, in an interview.

He even took it upon himself to make it count, as he dropped out of school one year before graduating because he had no time to study and it took from his football time. Sure, it did not go well with his parents, but eventually, Otamendi, who was not earmarked as a future star for Argentinian football, got his way.

But his ascension was not without problems. He also took up boxing, when he was a 15-year-old, trying to become even tougher, as his build – 1.83m tall – was not necessarily material for a strong central defender. And he was close to calling it quits when he was 18 years old, as he could not break into Vélez’s senior squad.

He had to wait for his chance until he was 21 years old, but when Ricardo Gareca came to Vélez, Otamendi became an immediate starter for the Argentinian side. And he was so good, that in a single year he was brought in by FC Porto for €4 million fee, with the Portuguese side being impressed by Otamendi’s qualities.

From there on, everything started to take flight. Porto are well-known in Europe for being masters of scouting in South America and Otamendi became a key players in their squad, with Valencia signing him for €12 million in 2014.

It was a surprise, though, that the Spanish club immediately loaned him in Brazil, to Atletico Mineiro, but he came back a player energised and started delivering excellent performances, being the second-best player in clearances in the La Liga after he returned.

Otamendi caught the eye of Manchester City, who shipped €40 million for him in 2015 and from there on, everything is history. The Argentinian centre back became a mainstay in the defence under Pep Guardiola, helping the Citizens win two Premier League titles and also being named in the PFA Team of the Year in the 2017-18 season.

“We have a Superman on the team. Everyone talks about De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling, but if I had to single out one, I would say Nico Otamendi is the best,” said Guardiola after the Argentinian defender had an excellent season for City.

But Otamendi’s love affair with Argentina’s national team was somewhat on and off. He made his debut in 2009 and the final at Qatar 2022 against France will be his 100th game in the “La Albiceleste”.

He did feature at South Africa 2010 and Russia 2018, but missed the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, due to a drop in his form that evidently hurt a lot. But his is a warrior, a “Mohican” as he goes in some quarters.

However, the preferred nickname is “The General”. Otamendi might not be tall, but he is strong and had astonishing speed. Now, at 34 years old, at his last FIFA World Cup in his career, he led by example and held together a tightly-knit unit in defence, which conceded only five goals in six matches, including three clean sheets, against Mexico, Poland and in the semi-final against Croatia.

Four years ago, Otamendi was considered a liability, after Argentina were eliminated in the Round of 16 by France, their future opponent in the final. The defender even dropped a level, now playing for Benfica, in Portugal, but he is reenergised and playing some of the best football in his career.

A rock in defence at Qatar 2022, Otamendi has proven that those boxing lessons taken with his cousin were crucial in forging up a good mentality and a good character.

“We will try to do our best to reach the goal. We are 26 warriors who are willing to give everything to try to bring joy to the Argentine people,” concluded Otamendi.

Editor's pick