The Uruguayan maestro was the stuff of nightmares for opposition sides despite his tendency to appear lackadaisical.
By Nick Boffa
South America can be an enchanting mix of paradisiacal sights, good times, adventure and abundant joie de vivre with just the slightest hint of something more sinister below the surface. Funny about that, really – the football is entirely the same. South American football is famously easy on the eye (at least most of the time) but when a win is on the line, the gloves tend to come off fairly rapidly – think Luis Suarez.
The continent has produced countless rogue operators; eccentric players endowed with outrageous talent and wild personalities, some loveable, others less so. Uruguay, a pint-sized hotbed of talent among more reputed neighbours, has produced plenty in both categories but none quite like Álvaro Recoba.
Álvaro Recoba was born in 1976 in the capital Montevideo and it wasn’t long before he was excelling in the youth set-up at Danubio, where he debuted in the first-team aged 17. The club, founded by Bulgarian brothers and named from nostalgia for the European river, produced other greats including Diego Forlán, Edinson Cavani, Javier Chevantón and Marcelo Zalayeta. After two seasons with Danubio, Recoba moved to Uruguayan giants Nacional. Known in his homeland as El Chino, for his perceived Asiatic features, Recoba was a roaring success at the biggest club in Uruguay. His performances, such as this incredible solo goal, convinced Inter to part with an initial fee of £15 million (oddly enough the first and only fee he would command in his professional career). To say that his career in Milan started with a bang would be an understatement.
Not many on this planet can claim to have up-staged Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, aka Il Fenomeno. Yet a young Recoba did just that in 1997 as Inter debuted their new South American talent together against Brescia at the San Siro. With the nerazzurri trailing their less-fancied opponents by a goal, the Uruguayan was introduced as a substitute and scored twice in the final ten minutes to hand his new employers a 2-1 victory – Álvaro Recoba had arrived. If the feat itself were not enough to endear him to his new fans (and it certainly was), the nature of the goals sent Interisti into a frenzy; one was a long-range thunderbolt and the other was a sublime free kick driven into the top corner.
The combination of these goals went some way to encapsulating everything that made Recoba great; he was a perfect mix of pace, power and agility with breathtaking dribbling skills. One cannot underestimate his tenacity, as his slight frame endured a torrid time at the hands of the most robust Serie A defenders. He was capable of mind-blowing feats and often took control of matches at will; at his best, he was able to this with admirable consistency. One such spell came away from Inter whilst he was on loan at Venezia in 1998/99; he scored 11 goals with nine assists in 19 games to stave off relegation for I Lagunari. An anecdote from that time tells of Recoba receiving a watch from his teammates in appreciation of his performances and as a humorous nod to his consistent tardiness.
Italy was the perfect setting at the time for Recoba to showcase his skills; the country has a genuine love-affair with the trequartista – a creative player able to provide the link between midfield and attack. However, his laissez-faire style often saw him criticised as languid or downright lazy. Others considered this a huge part of his appeal as a player, as it often distinguished him from others around him. Inter were obviously impressed as they renewed the playmaker’s contract in 2001 with a bumper deal rumoured to have made him the highest-paid player in the world at the time. Controversy wasn’t far away, and in the same year, Recoba was charged by the Italian FA for carrying a fake Italian passport to circumvent limits on foreign players. He was banned for one year, reduced to four months on appeal, and he went on to perform strongly for the nerazzurri.
The 2002/03 season saw Recoba form a deadly trio with Christian Vieri and Hernán Crespo as Inter charged into the semi-finals of the Champions League, before losing on away goals to cross-town rivals AC Milan. However, by this time, cracks were starting to appear in his relationship with manager Héctor Cuper. Injuries were also slowing the playmaker down and after a decade of service, Recoba was loaned to Torino before departing permanently on a free transfer to Greek side Paionios in 2007.
A nostalgic homecoming became a reality when the 33 year-old returned to his former team Danubio before continuing his tour of previous clubs by landing at Nacional for another swansong. It would be tempting to write this period off as a postscript to a successful European club career, typical of so many players returning home to familiar pastures. However, it must be noted that Recoba contributed to titles at both clubs during his second stints with crucial goals, including this trademark free kick during stoppage time of the Uruguayan classico.
Yep, big game player.
Recoba was equally adept when he donned the sky blue jersey and represented his proud footballing homeland. Australian readers will particularly remember him as a source of terror as he pulled the strings in World Cup qualifiers and friendlies, one in which he scored. Recoba scored ten goals in 68 appearances for his nation as they consistently defied their small size to compete with distinction on the regional and world stage. El Chino scored in both World Cup and Copa America tournaments for Uruguay and netted a critical winner against traditional rival Argentina in a qualifier for the 2006 World Cup.
Often a subject of criticism like many big names, Álvaro Recoba performed feats of wonder at both club and international level, finishing with an impressive honours haul that included two Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia triumphs, one UEFA Cup and two league titles in Uruguay, both with Nacional. Free-spirited players such as Recoba enrich our own experience of the game; a loveable rogue who gave joy to supporters and frustration to coaches in equal measure.