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Ten minutes remain and Internazionale are losing 1-0 at home to Brescia on the opening day of the 1997-98 season. With owner Massimo Moratti’s millions burning a hole in their pockets, the Nerazzurri had just broken the world record to bring Ronaldo to the Giuseppe Meazza from FC Barcelona. Before the game, all cameras and attention were lavished on Il Fenomeno, and much was expected from a team that had spent the best part of a decade flattering to deceive and living in the shadow of their famous neighbours.
With a shock result on the cards another new South American signing, albeit one with a lower profile than the Brazilian, entered the fray: Uruguayan forward Álvaro Recoba. Eight minutes after replacing Maurizio Ganz, and with 10 minutes remaining on the clock, Recoba picked up a pass from Benoît Cauet, lashing the ball into the top corner of the net from fully 30 yards.
Five minutes later, with the Nerazzurri now in the ascendancy, a free-kick was awarded 35 yards from goal and it was Recoba who was tasked with the job. Showing there was more than one string to his bow, Recoba used more curl and precision than power, whipping the ball over the wall and into the opposite corner of the net. The relief was palpable and even Gianluca Pagliuca rushed from his goal to join in the celebrations. With Moratti, Ronaldo and the momentum from a dramatic comeback behind them it was expected that Inter would finally come out of Milan’s shadow and win the Scudetto for the first time since 1989. Recoba’s debut hinted that a possible new golden period in the club’s history would also coincide with the rise of a new star.
Like much of the South American continent, Uruguay was suffering under a military dictatorship in the latter half of the 20th century and it was against this backdrop that Álvaro Alexander Recoba was born in March 1976. Nicknamed El Chino due to his Oriental features, Recoba joined local Montevideo club Danubio as a youth player, making his full debut as a 17-year-old. Recoba quickly built a reputation as a player with a beautiful left foot, adept at dribbling and beating an opponent with pace and trickery.
In his two years in the first team at Danubio, Recoba scored 11 league goals in 34 appearances before making the move across the city to Nacional, Uruguay’s most successful club. Maturing as a young man, El Chino upped his strike rate, bagging 17 league goals in 33 appearances between 1996 and 1997. At the age of 21, and with four domestic campaigns under his belt, Recoba was seemingly ready for his big move abroad.
After his two-goal debut, the future looked bright. Recoba came off the bench again in Inter’s second game of the 1997-98 season, although the Nerazzurri went down to a 4-2 defeat at Bologna. He then wouldn’t reappear until after the New Year, coming off the bench again to score in an away draw with Empoli. That was to be his last goal of the campaign and he only started one league game in the remainder of the season.
The forward line was stacked with the likes of Ronaldo, Youri Djorkaeff, Iván Zamorano and other such players hardened to the top level of European competition, and Recoba was still a young man trying to adapt to a new culture and level of football. Inter finished second in the league, mounting their strongest title challenge in years, as well as winning the UEFA Cup. Perhaps after a bedding-in period Recoba would be ready to show his undoubted promise in his sophomore year.
However, his tough beginning in Italy’s industrial north continued into his second season, where he only made one substitute appearance before Christmas. Manager Luigi Simoni was sacked in November after an indifferent start, collecting only 17 points from a possible 33, and replaced with Marcello Lippi. Lippi, who had won the league title and Champions League whilst managing Juventus, was expected to do the same with the highly talented squad he inherited from his predecessor.
Initially, it appeared that Recoba was not part of Lippi’s plans as he was loaned out to Venezia for the remainder of the 1998-99 campaign. Gaining experience through first-team football, Recoba started all of the Arancioneroverdi’s remaining games, scoring 10 goals as Venezia finished a respectable 11th. Ironically, Venezia finished only four points behind his parent club, who failed to qualify for European competition in what amounted to a miserable campaign.
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Recoba was back at the San Siro for the 1999-2000 season and became a relative regular under Lippi, making 27 league appearances in total. After 21 November he didn’t miss a game, and finished with double figures for the league campaign. Inter finished fourth in Serie A, therefore qualifying for the preliminary rounds of the Champions League, and reached the Coppa Italia final.
They crashed out of the 2000-01 Champions League qualifiers at the hands of Helsingborg, denying the then-24-year-old Recoba the chance to dine at Europe’s top table. Recoba also had to cope with a new manager, as Lippi paid the price for the Helsingborg defeat with his job, with Marco Tardelli coming next through Moratti’s revolving door. Following the Helsingborg debacle, Inter dropped into the UEFA Cup, reaching the last-16, with Recoba scoring a respectable three goals in eight games in the competition.
On the home front, hewas heavily involved in the league campaign, featuring in the first 16 games. The second half of the season wasn’t as successful, although he did manage five more goals to end up on eight for the season as Inter finished fifth in the league. Finishing 24 points behind champions Roma was not enough for the ambitious Moratti, who dispensed with Tardelli and replaced him with Argentine Héctor Cúper. Recoba had now completed four seasons at Inter, and even though he was yet to convince, Moratti rewarded him with a long-term contract that allegedly made him the highest paid player in world football.
The new contract proved to be another false dawn in Recoba’s rise, and controversy wasn’t too far around the corner. In June 2001 the Uruguayan was banned by the Italian Football Federation in what became known as the Passport Scandal, which saw Recoba and several other South Americans banned for using false passports to circumvent limits on foreign players. Fortunately for Recoba, the original season-long ban was reduced to four months on appeal allowing him to return to the field in December 2001.
He appeared in five of the next 10 games, scoring one goal, and from February onwards he solidified his place in the side, appearing in every match up until the end of the season, adding five goals to his tally. Inter finished third, only two points behind champions Juventus. After five seasons, and with the passport scandal behind him, was it now time for Recoba to shine?
In 2002-03, after four years away, Inter were back in the Champions League, although they would have to do it without Ronaldo, who departed for La Liga and Real Madrid in the summer for a world-record fee. Recoba appeared in three-quarters of the group games in the first two phases, scoring twice, as Inter progressed to the quarter-finals. Valencia were then dispatched and Recoba appeared in both legs of the semi-finals against local rivals Milan, who beat the Nerazzurri on the away goals rule and would go on beat domestic rivals Juventus in the final. Domestically, Inter once again played second fiddle to the Old Lady of Turin, as Juventus finished seven points clear at the top of Serie A. Recoba managed nine league goals in 27 league appearances, a respectable ratio of one in three.
If Recoba’s career was punctuated by peaks and troughs, then the 2003-04 season can definitely be categorised as the latter. In an injury-ravaged campaign, El Chino only managed 18 appearances in the league, although he scored eight goals, which was enough for him to finish second in the Inter scoring charts behind Christian Vieri.
Inter finished fourth and once again didn’t trouble the league summit, despite starting well with two wins and two clean sheets from the opening two fixtures. However, the next five games failed to produce a win, and Cúper lost his hot seat to Alberto Zaccheroni due to the poor run that included a derby defeat. The situation in the Champions League wasn’t much better, as Inter were dumped out in the group stage following a humiliating 5-1 thrashing by Arsenal in Milan.
The 2004-05 season was again characterised by highs and lows for both Inter and Recoba. Under another new manager Roberto Mancini, the club finished third in the league and won the Coppa Italia, the first piece of silverware since the UEFA Cup nine years earlier. However, an embarrassing 5-0 aggregate defeat to rivals Milan in the quarter-finals of the Champions League poured cold water on the victory in the domestic cup.
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Recoba only managed three goals in 13 league appearances but also produced a moment of magic, labelling the goal the favourite of his career. In January 2005 Sampdoria visited the Giuseppe Meazza and took a two-goal lead. Once again Recoba came off the bench, evoking memories of his debut over seven years earlier, to lead a fightback. Recoba set up Obafembi Martins for the first goal, before Vieri snatched the equaliser.
With the game poised at 2-2, the ball broke to the Uruguayan 20 yards from goal, and he thrashed it on the half-volley with his hammer of a left foot. The ball rocketed into the goalkeeper’s bottom right corner, the spin arching it away from his outstretched arms, and Recoba’s face exploded with joy and relief. The season, and the Sampdoria match, was his career in microcosm: frustration, injury and world-class match-winning moments that could bring an entire stadium to its feet.
If Recoba was once on the wrong side of a scandal when he was banned for possessing a false passport, he and his team were the beneficiaries of another at the end of the 2005-06 season. Inter finished third in the league, 15 points behind Juventus and 12 behind Milan. However, the top two were implicated in what became known as Calciopoli, where several teams and referees were accused of involvement in a match-rigging scandal. Juventus were retrospectively relegated, Milan had 30 points docked and Inter were declared champions by default. After nine years in Italy, Recoba finally had his hands on the Scudetto. However, the success must have been bittersweet for El Chino as arguably the title was won off the pitch rather than on it. He was now aged 30 and his influence on the team was waning.
The writing was on the wall for Recoba in the 2006-07 season. Following the demise of their fiercest rivals, Inter dominated the league, amassing an incredible 97 points, losing only one game all season and finishing 22 points ahead of nearest challengers Roma. However, El Chino managed only 15 appearances in the league and Champions League, notching a solitary goal. The following season, and what would prove to be his last in Italy, saw Recoba loaned to Torino where he managed 22 appearances, scoring one goal, as Il Toro finished 15th in the league.
Recoba remained in Europe following his departure from Italy, joining Greek side Panionios for 18 months before more injuries, coupled with his high wages, led to the club rescinding his contract. Aged 33, it was now time for the Uruguayan to return home in that time-honoured tradition adopted by many a South American footballer. He re-signed for Danubio in January 2010, spending 18 months with his boyhood club before returning to another former employer, Nacional, in the summer of 2011. Recoba would spend five years with the club, and although age and injuries restricted his appearances, his influence was still there for all to see. He helped Nacional to two Uruguayan league titles with one highlight being a typically stunning free-kick in a crucial Clásico victory against Peñarol.
A 40-year-old Recoba called time on his long and illustrious career in April 2016 with a benefit match that featured some of his generation’s best South American talent, including Carlos Valderrama, Juan Román Riquelme and former colleagues Javier Zanetti and Iván Zamorano. The match was also watched by Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez, showing just how fondly El Chino is thought of in his homeland, whom he represented 68 times.
So how would you sum up Recoba’s time in Italy, and indeed his career as a whole? He arrived on the Italian peninsular as a promising youngster, announcing himself with a debut that makes Roy of the Rovers look realistic. You could argue that those 18 minutes against Brescia marked a high point in his career, as the remainder of his footballing days contained injuries, disappointment, scandal and unfulfilled potential punctuated by fleeting moments of sheer brilliance. Inter did become the dominant Italian force during his spell, winning six major trophies, although Recoba’s influence on any of those triumphs is limited. He will be remembered fondly but discussions will always come attached with the ‘what if’ caveat.
However, Recoba doesn’t see it that way. Speaking after his farewell match, he remarked: “I was fortunate to play with so many champions, and I’ll be forever grateful. I was always happy during my career, because I was doing my hobby as my job, and I always just wanted to entertain people. I have no regrets.”
As football fans we often lament perceived unfulfilled potential but if the man himself is happy with his career then that is good enough for me, for he certainly has plenty to be proud of
By Dan Williamson. Follow @winkveron