This feature is part of Virtuoso
There are three prevailing schools of thought when it comes to Álvaro Recoba. The first is that he was a brilliant talent whose two Scudetti at Internazionale earmark him as a modern great. The second is that he was overrated, a lazy footballer who wasted his gifts. The third, and perhaps most measured, is that he should’ve achieved more, such was his exquisite talent, one that Ronaldo once called “not from this planet”.
I see all three – and I care little for them. To me, and hopefully a few others, Recoba was the gift-bearer of something far more important, something eternal: joy. Where our clubs crashed and burned, and where so many other footballers filled us with disappointment, Recoba’s thirst for football, staggering ability and likeable personality made us dream. Those dreams brought us happiness.
Rarely was that more evident than on his debut for Inter as a wide-eyed 21-year-old in 1997. Three years in Uruguay’s top-flight for Danubio and Nacional, two clubs he’d later finish his career with, introduced the world to his blossoming talent. He was sharp off the mark, able to beat his man, and possessed a left foot of extraordinary power. The Giuseppe Meazza would soon find that out.
Despite that, all eyes on 31 August 1997, as Inter took on Brescia, were firmly fixed elsewhere. Namely on Ronaldo, the world’s best and most expensive footballer. It was day one of the Serie A season and fans around the world were tuned in to see the Brazilian weave his magic wand across the turf of Italy’s most iconic stadium.
Much like the destruction of so many scripts before and after, Brescia had other plans in mind, rewriting their own version and taking a 73rd-minute lead in a game that saw Ronaldo stifled and Youri Djorkaeff and Diego Simeone unable to exert any control. Brescia’s marquee summer signing that summer was Dario Hübner – one of Italy’s most under-appreciated strikers – who powered home a superb effort off an Andrea Pirlo pass, which had the headline writers scrambling to declare Inter manager Gigi Simoni under pressure already.
Two minutes before Hübner’s goal, Simoni, still unsure of his new Uruguayan, whose effort in training hadn’t exactly enamoured him to the manager, sent on Recoba in an effort to start the season on a high. It would be the 19 minutes that had so many fall in love with him.
Recoba’s first goal for Inter came via the industrious work on Benoît Cauet. Receiving the ball some 25 yards out, he took one touch out of his feet with his right foot, perfectly placing it on his left. Two things were clear: Recoba only had one idea in his mind, and Brescia felt safe enough to not close down the number 20.
Three seconds later, the ball, on a perfectly straight arc that just carried on rising, had thundered into the far top corner, leaving Giovanni Cervone no chance. The stadium erupted in joy, Simoni jumped with relief, and Recoba, at 21 and surrounded by Javier Zanetti and Simeone, couldn’t quite believe what he’d done. But there was more to come.
In arguably the most competitive era of the world’s best league, Inter couldn’t afford to drop two points at home to a team they were expected to beat. They needed a hero. With Ronaldo still devoid of the service his talents required and Brescia putting on an inspired rearguard effort, it would take a goal of similar magnitude to make certain of victory.
His second goal, and Inter’s winner, would arguably be better than his first. A full 30 yards from goal, Inter win a free-kick, just right of centre. Unsure of whether it was too far, Inter’s defenders went forward in the hope that they could muster an effort off the lofted ball into the box. That was never the plan.
With six steps, Recoba wrote himself into legend, bending the ball at will over and around the wall and leaving poor Cervone with no chance again. The pace on the ball was remarkable, with the bend taking it from just outside the right-hand post to marginally inside, nestling peacefully into the stanchion.
That Gianluca Pagliuca was the first to race to Recoba says a great deal. The Uruguayan, unsure of where to run and celebrate, hopped around a-la Alan Kennedy in the 1984 European Cup final. What mattered was that he’d secured the win and that he’d announced himself to both his teammates and the fans. The cult of Recoba began.
Some say it was never as good for him at Inter. He spent a portion of the next season at Venezia, keeping them up and scoring some more sublime goals, but later returned to excel in patches at the Giuseppe Meazza. He was rarely consistent but continually offered goals and pieces of skill that defied common logic. If he played today, he’d surely be known as the ultimate YouTube footballer.
But that would be a disservice to what he did bring. He put smiles on faces and inspired so many youngsters, not least Luis Suárez, to add an element of unpredictability to their game. While he couldn’t transfer his talent to consistency at the Nerazzurri, perhaps weighed down by expectation, he remains the favourite of many Inter fans, not least former president Massimo Moratti.
Whatever you made of the career that followed, for 19 minutes in August 1997, Álvaro Recoba was the perfect footballer was all knew he could be.
By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp