Alvaro Recoba played for Inter in an era of some all-time greats, but he was the favourite of Massimo Moratti and plenty more beyond him. But why? What was it about this dumpy kid with a pudding bowl haircut…?
“He is not just a simple footballer, he is football. He did things that normal players do not.”
A few years ago Massimo Moratti was asked which Inter player who had passed through the club during his tenure was his favourite. While his 18 years in charge was, to put things charitably, often rather chaotic, Moratti saw some serious talent at the San Siro. Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Christian Vieri, Adriano, Javier Zanetti, Roberto Baggio, Ivan Zamorano, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder…decent players.
But his favourite was Alvaro Recoba. “Ronaldo was the greatest player in the world and we admired him for this, but we didn’t expect Recoba to be so strong,” he said. “Maybe in the end you love the one who surprised you the most, so I say Chino.”
Ah yes, Chino. Best get this out of the way early on. Alas, Recoba was not given the nickname for his favourite type of trousers. The Totally Football Show must solemnly report that political correctness took a back seat in 1990s Italy, and unfortunately ‘El Chino’ means exactly what you think it means.
Racist nicknames aside, the story of Alvaro Recoba’s time in Italy is a curious one. As James Richardson said on the episode of Golazzo dedicated to Recoba, he was “one of the greats, when he could be bothered.” If you could sum Recoba up in a neat sentence, it might be this: he was signed in the same summer as Ronaldo, upstaged him on the opening day of the season with two otherworldly goals from a cumulative distance of about 70 yards to seal a comeback against Brescia, then only scored once more that season…which was from the halfway line.
Recoba was a prodigy back home in Uruguay, and was spotted by Inter great Sandro Mazzola while playing for Nacional in 1996. There was talk of Juventus gazumping the deal, but Inter got their man after the 1997 Copa America, although given their other, slightly more high profile signing joining a squad that also featured Zamorano, Mauricio Ganz and Marco Branca, Recoba almost slunk in the back door.
A slightly dumpy No.10 with a pudding bowl haircut, he didn’t exactly look like the sort of player who would thrill a generation of fans, his employer and a young Nacional player called Gaston Pereiro who loved him so much he had Recoba’s face tattooed on his arm. Moratti didn’t quite get inked, but he did make Recoba the best paid player at Inter, on bigger wages than Ronaldo and Vieri, and possibly the best paid player in the world for a while too. He was, as James Richardson put it, a “monument to Morattian folly.”
In some respects it’s easy to see why Recoba bewitched so many people. He produced moments that few others could, a combination of power and delicacy that satisfies the cerebral and visceral parts of our brains. There’s a YouTube compilation of him making some of the greatest defenders Serie A and the world has even seen look like utter buffoons, four minutes of pulling down catenaccio’s pants. It’s an entertaining watch.
Nutmegging Patrick Vieira then lithely shimmying around the Frenchman’s attempt to hoof him up in the air is a favourite moment. Not least because it was at the 2002 World Cup and the defending champions were on the way to flopping out without scoring a goal, so frankly the last thing Vieira needed was some pipsqueak genius making him look like an idiot.
But as the compilation shows, Vieira can take solace in not being alone. On his international debut against Spain in 1995, he ‘sombrero’d’ Fernando Hierro with his second touch of the ball. As this might indicate, there was always a strong sense that Recoba didn’t give a flying one about anything, the problem being that included his attitude to practise too.
“The class I don’t like taking is training,” he once said. “The class I do like taking is playing games.” At the end of his loan spell at at Venezia, he was late for training so often that his colleagues gifted him a clock. “Recoba was disgusted by training,” said his strike partner there, Pippo Maniero.
All good fun, but was this relative lack of application the reason that he didn’t do more with his obvious talent? “The only reason he wasn’t the best player in the world is because he didn’t want to be,” said Juan Sebastian Veron.
I always just wanted to entertain people. I have no regrets.
For what it’s worth, Recoba disagreed with that sentiment. “It is not that I didn’t want to,” he said a few years later. “I think I did my best. Maybe it was all I was able to do. Maybe I didn’t try the hardest, I still ask myself if I actually could have done more or not. Who knows, maybe in a few years I will agree with what Sebastian said.”
Should we admire someone who could’ve, but didn’t? Gab Marcotti isn’t so convinced. “I’m all for the magic and the artistry, and the iconoclast who doesn’t play by the rules. But there has to be some sort of message behind it. There isn’t with this guy.”
So why do people love Recoba so much? He was a player who achieved what he achieved on pure talent, not graft. Which is the ultimate fantasy of a footballer. You admire the grafter, but don’t idolise them: bless him, but no kid aspires to be James Milner. In essence, Recoba was good at the fun bits of football, and didn’t concern himself with the other stuff.
The other reason people love Recoba is that he produced moments. People watch football for all sorts of reasons, but one of the main ones is moments. Moments that you’ll remember for years and bore your family about and relish being there. It’s why Fernando Torres can’t possibly be regarded as a failure at Chelsea, because he scored that goal in Barcelona, probably the greatest moment the fans at the top of the Nou Camp will have experienced (until a few weeks later, perhaps).
Moments like that Inter debut and the upstaging of Ronaldo. Or moments like the comeback against Sampdoria in 2005, when Inter were 2-0 down with 87 minutes on the clock, only for Obafemi Martins, Christian Vieri and finally Recoba with a low-flying missile into the bottom corner to score and snatch the most ludicrous of victories.
But the moment that might sum Recoba up better than most might be his last goal for Inter. By the 2006/7 season he had faded from relevance, Zlatan Ibrahimovic filling the maestro role and doing it rather more reliably than the Uruguayan. Recoba only started six league games that season and had already expressed his desire to leave, which he would do by the following campaign.
By April Inter had the title wrapped up, standing atop the Calciopoli-wrecked wasteland of Serie A as they would for a couple more seasons. A week after the Scudetto was sealed in a home game against Empoli, Recoba was afforded a rare start in the absence of Ibrahimovic. Just past the hour mark with the score at 1-1, Inter won a corner on the right.
Recoba stepped up, boomed over the cross, an in it sailed, under the crossbar, goalkeeper Davide Bassi flapping at the incoming missile, only enough to help it into the net. And with that he was gone: substituted 14 minutes later, only a few more Inter appearances to come, but no more goals. No more moments of magic. No more audacious attempts that nobody else would consider. Amid a season in which he didn’t contribute a great deal, this was a brief, isolated piece of brilliance. It could be no more Recoba.
Nostalgia is essentially selective remembrance, of yearning for the good parts of something while forgetting the bad parts, Recoba is the perfect encapsulation of that. A player with enough highlights that you can mistily half remember, without the bother of calling to mind all the times he didn’t track back or shuffled around looking half-interested. Because who cares about tracking back when you can produce moments like Recoba did?
“I was fortunate to play with so many champions, and I’ll be forever grateful,” he said after he retired in 2016. “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.”
You can listen to the edition of Golazzo dedicated to Recoba here, and even better, you can subscribe to the Totally Football Show here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.