Introducing a new regular feature for Football Italiano, Enigmas in Calcio will take a look at those players to have had as much of a cultural impact on Serie A, if not for the same reasons as their colleagues providing us with Lessons in Calcio. There is no more of an enigma to start the ball rolling than the Uruguayan master, Alvaro Recoba.
“I have played with Recoba for six years. He has scored lots of goals but he will always be controversial because of his characteristics. I will always be convinced that he’s a great player. He has a left foot like no other player in the world. Sometimes certain players are criticized and called into question. But El Chino always manages to prove everyone wrong, year after year.”
– Christian Vieri January 9, 2005
Sunday afternoon at the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium, early 2005. Inter is at home to Sampdoria. It is a game which they have dominated, but inexplicably, with seven minutes remaining, they find themselves two goals down. Home fans are leaving the stadium in droves. It is cold, and a good opportunity to beat the traffic. Star striker and leading scorer Adriano has already been substituted, Samp’s keeper Antonioli seems unbeatable and although Inter is still undefeated in Roberto Mancini’s first season in charge, this defeat had probably been coming. They have drawn too many games and at this relatively early stage of the season – lo Scudetto seems out of reach. It is a familiar story.
The player who has just come on to replace Adriano, is one Alvaro Recoba. Famous for a Serie A debut in 1997 that upstaged Ronaldo’s, famous for once being the world’s highest paid player, and for many, famous for being the greatest waste of talent in Italian football.
“El Chino” – nicknamed for his oriental features – started his career in his native Uruguay as a 16-year-old at Danubio. His goalscoring record there was extraordinary. 32 goals in 31 appearances earned him a move to one of the nation’s biggest clubs, Nacional. There, he rattled in 30 goals in 27 games. This young forward, quick running with the ball and with gunpowder in his left foot, was clearly special. Ex-Nerazzurri legend, Sandro Mazzola certainly thought so. Spotting him on a trip to South America in 1996, Mazzola recommended him to the oil tycoon and Inter President, Massimo Moratti, who immediately snapped him up.
Recoba joined the Milanese giants in the same summer that Ronaldo had also arrived from Barcelona. On the opening day of the season at home to Brescia, with “Ronaldomania” in full swing and a worldwide television audience assured, the platform was unwittingly set for the 21-year-old from Montevideo to show the masses what he could do. Coming off the bench with Inter trailing to a Dario Hubner goal, he duly delivered. First, to equalize with a thirty-yard missile that flew into the top far corner and then, with a direct free kick from similar distance, he won the game. Both goals were in the last ten minutes, both were left foot rockets almost comic book in precision and extravagance. It was some way to announce your arrival.
Ronaldo however, was always going to be the main man, and so it proved as the Brazilian inspired Inter to second place that year. Narrowly missing out on the championship to the Juventus team of Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids et al. Recoba was a peripheral figure. With the rigours of the Italian game and the rough treatment of it’s defenders, that first season in European football was always going to be one of transition for the Uruguayan.
A goal from the halfway line against Empoli reminded everyone just what that left foot could do, but it was a loan move in the January of the following campaign, under the guidance of Coach Walter Novellino at Venezia, that was to bring spectacular results. Recoba shone in Venice, where he formed an electric striking partnership with Filippo Maniero. Contributing nine assists and 10 goals in 19 games – including a sublime free kick against Inter – El Chino wowed the Venetian public for the five months he was there and they still talk about him now.
Recoba returned to Inter for the 1999/00 season and signed a six-year contract for a reported £4m after tax, making him football’s highest earner. However, life back in Lombardy was not without its problems. Regular playing time was compromised by niggling injuries and a four month suspension for holding a fake passport. He was still however, the golden child of Massimo Moratti. With Ronaldo suffering from a long-term knee injury, Recoba’s fleeting moments of brilliance proved consolation for the wealthy patron in what was a difficult era for the club – a period characterized by huge spending and chronic underachievement. Indeed, the squad was labeled as “spoilt children” by departing Coach Marcello Lippi in 2000. It is a view of Inter that was held by many and for some years to come.
Some might argue Recoba was the embodiment of this decadent environment, awash with talent but without the head and will of a winner. Introverted, on and off the field, over time he became an easy target and was labeled inconsistent and even a luxury player. Even those who worked with him got in on the act, like Argentine Coach Hector Cuper. A successor to the Inter bench, Cuper made Recoba a scapegoat for Inter’s failures to land either a Scudetto or the Champions League, castigating him for no-show performances against Lazio in Rome on the last day of the 2001/02 season, and in the “Euroderby” semi finals with Milan a year later.
Recoba’s fervent supporters would claim that the inconsistent tag is unfair, and that he was never played consistently. They would also point to the statistics that show Recoba scored a goal once in every 180 minutes. Which, over a ten year period in Italian football, with the fact that he was often played as a winger, is quite remarkable. But whether one is for Recoba or against, the consensus is that he stayed at Inter too long.
Cynics will say that he stayed for the money, content to be on the fringe of things with a pay cheque as big as his was. But just like any political candidate is asked about core issues of health and education, each new Coach from their first day at Appiano Gentile, from Cuper to Alberto Zaccheroni and Roberto Mancini, were asked about their plans for the Uruguayan. As much of an acknowledgment of the South American’s powers, as it was of the conundrum of realizing them. They all pledged to build the team around him and get the best of him. Perhaps, Recoba, who loved Inter, had every reason to think that it was a matter of time before they got it right upstairs and his loyalty would bear fruit for himself and the team eventually.
It was not to be. A Scudetto came in 2007 but it could not be said that Recoba was a key figure. Marginalized for the last time, he left that summer to reunite with Novellino at Torino, but an unremarkable season saw El Chino leave Italian football altogether and now, having just celebrated his 33rd birthday, he is playing with Panionios of Greece.
One wonders what might have happened had he taken the route of someone like Adrian Mutu. The Romanian himself a talented young player at Inter, who rose to prominence not wearing the famous blue and black stripes but at clubs like Verona and Parma. Roberto Baggio, maligned by the big Coaches at the big teams found full expression in the provinces at Bologna and Brescia, albeit later in his career. One could even look at examples such Juan Roman Riquelme, brought over from South America by Barcelona, who played the best football of his career at Villarreal. And more mischievously perhaps, with the example of Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf, two players who played with Recoba at Inter, one wonders what would have become if he had also made the move across town. Alas, we will never know.
And so back to that January afternoon in 2005, against Sampdoria. A game that has since gone down in Nerazzurri folklore for a rallying 3-2 finish. In the 12 minutes that Recoba was on the field, he played in Obafemi Martini to pull a goal back, smacked a post with a 25-yard effort that had the keeper beaten, and with seconds remaining, scored the winning goal with a even crisper half-volley from twenty yards out. It was classic Recoba and just how many of us were introduced to that all those years before.
“He has extraordinary talents. If he hasn’t managed to express himself to the best of his abilities then he’s also a bit to blame.” Roberto Mancini commented after the game. If proof was needed as to the polarity of the Recoba question, Mancini’s great friend and goal scorer on the day, Christian Vieri said that this was just another example of El Chino proving people wrong. But rather tellingly perhaps, when the man himself finally spoke, he of course dedicated his winner to Massimo Moratti and to “all those who are close to me and who are fond of me.” Recoba knew that he wasn’t for everyone, but for those of us who believed, we will never forget him.