Muscle-bound, amply tattooed, square-jawed and with a straight, if slightly squashed, nose, nobody who did not know Nicolas Otamendi would surely bat an eyelid if you told them he was a professional boxer. What's more, weighing in at 81kg, the Valencia centre-back would belong firmly in the heavyweight division, and remains a fan of a sport he practised as a hobby in his youth – to the extent he keeps a punchbag hanging in his house back in Argentina.
“My cousin really likes boxing too and it’s always good fun practising every so often,” Otamendi told FIFA.com and indeed, among the Argentinian international’s qualities are the resilience, quick feet and power so valued both in the ring and out on the pitch. “Above all else, though, boxing was a hobby,” he explained. “I used to do it because the training sessions were very complete, but I never considered doing it professionally.”
Still boasting a pugilist’s physique and an undeniable ‘hard-man’ aura, the 26-year-old has also had to bounce back from body blows during his time in football. For that reason he cracks a wry smile when the conversation turns to his fine current form at the heart of Valencia’s backline, in addition to his return to* *national-team duty having not been selected for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™: “I’m trying to make the most of everything that happening to me. Things are going well at the moment and so I have to savour it, right?”
A spectacular start
Otamendi first announced himself to the wider public at the age of just 21, starring at the back for a title-winning Velez Sarsfield side. Quick, agile and rugged when required, the right-footed central defender’s displays quickly caught the eye of European clubs and then-Argentina boss Diego Armando Maradona, who gave him his debut for La Albiceleste and took him to South Africa 2010.
There, however, the fairy tale came to an abrupt end after a 4-0 mauling by Germany in the quarter-finals, with Otamendi among those subjected to the fiercest media criticism. “When you’re a defender, it always hurts when your team concedes,” he said. “The Argentinian media are very demanding, and as one of the newer players [I was singled out]… Even so, I tried not to dwell on it.”
Shortly after that World Cup came a switch to the Old Continent and FC Porto, where success and silverware once again came his way. Over four seasons with the Dragons, Otamendi collected winners’ medals in three Portuguese championships and the UEFA Europa League, his time with Os Portistas coming to an end with a February 2014 transfer to Valencia.
Unable to immediately turn out for his new club due to an excess of non-EU players, and with Brazil 2014 on the horizon, Nico packed his suitcase again in search of playing time – opting for a loan to Brazilian outfit Atletico Mineiro. “I was convinced that I needed matches, because my chance of being selected for the World Cup was at stake. I wanted my conscience to be clear, to know that I’d done everything I could to be there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be,” he added, the disappointment still evident in his words.
Brazil dream KO’d
Included in then Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella’s 30-man preliminary squad prior to Brazil 2014, Otamendi failed to make La Albiceleste’s definitive 23-player list. “It was really painful, because it’s what I’d been working towards,” he explained. “Unfortunately you get coaches who have their favourites. People might agree or disagree, but they’re the ones who have the last word.”
And though unable to play a part in his country’s run to the Final on Brazilian soil, Otamendi did not throw in the towel, continuing to train with his habitual ferocity – a trait that has helped him start the current season on the front foot. A first-choice at Valencia, who are presently battling it out in the upper reaches of La Liga, he has already earned comparisons from the club’s fans with ex-Ché legend and countryman Roberto Ayala. “It makes me really happy to be compared to someone like him. He’s one of my idols.
“It’s like getting a second chance,” continued Otamendi, commenting on his return to La Albiceleste under new boss Gerardo Martino, before signing off with an insight into his footballing ideology: “I need to keep training hard every day and performing well. I’m one of those who believes that, if a player keeps looking for opportunities, in the end they’ll come his way.”