What Could Have Been: Álvaro Recoba

Uruguay’s World Cup dream came to an end on Tuesday night in Cape Town, with the tournament’s surprise package falling at the penultimate hurdle in the shape of Bert Van Marwijk’s highly organised Holland. Fans were left wondering what could have been had a couple of contentious decisions or half chances gone their way, but these “what if?” scenarios are not foreign to followers of the Celeste, as Kevyn Doran reports.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Let’s go back to the year 1997, more specifically August 31st and the dawn of a new Serie A season. Powered by Massimo Moratti’s petroleum-injected millions, under-achieving Internazionale are a goal down to Dario Hubner and Brescia on a humid, sticky summer swan song.  With 70 minutes on the clock, Inter manager Luigi Simoni’s last throw of the dice was to hand a debut to one of Moratti’s new arrivals – a buck-toothed South American with a phenomenal record of more than a goal a game. It was a debut that would end up eclipsing that of almost any other player to pull on the black and blue of the Nerazzurri, as 20 minutes and two thirty-yard screamers later, Inter fans were heading home with 3 points, but more importantly, a new hero. Unfortunately, this mere mortal would struggle to reach such heights again, as a culmination of injuries would sabotage a career we should be looking back upon with marvel. Sound familiar yet? No, this is not another story about the magnificent Ronaldo, but rather a lament for the story of the Uruguyan Álvaro Recoba, who was once considered the most gifted and highly-paid footballer on the planet.

Recoba was born in 1976 in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, and began playing football at a young age. Like current national team stand-outs Diego Forlán and Edison Cavani, Recoba’s career began with local side Danubio. After plying his trade on the under age teams, the forward was given his debut for La Franja at the tender age of 16, such was his exceptional talent. A staggering 32 goals in 31 games over the course of two seasons earned Recoba a move to national powerhouse and continental challengers Club Nacional de Football, also based in the capital city. Playing at the highest level of Uruguayan football, the teenage Recoba continued his rise to prominence by bagging a further 30 goals in 27 games for his new employers. El Chino – as he had become known for his distinctive Asian features – was taking the Primera División by storm – earning himself hero status at Nacional (left) – and had begun to attract international interest thanks to his quick feet, blistering pace, fantastic dribbling and a left foot that was unrivalled in South America. This interest peaked when Sandro Mazzola – the creative genius of that famous La Grande Inter side of the 1960’s – recommended Recoba to Inter president Massimo Moratti. Despite having already spent €18 million on the formidable Ronaldo, Moratti waved his chequebook once again and brought the young forward to Italy.

Such an exceptional debut vaulted expectations of Recoba to unachievable heights. The uncompromisin hatchet-men of Italian defences across the league bullied and kicked the 21 year old out of games regularly. A majestic, Beckham-esque chip from the half way line recaptured headlines towards the end of the season, but he remained a peripheral figure for Inter in a season that saw them finish runners-up to Juventus. During the January transfer window of the following season, Inter loaned Recoba to relegation-threatened Venezia where, once again, he became a hero. In 19 appearances for the Arancioneroverdi, he managed 11 goals and 9 assists, saving the club from relegation. One of the many sterling performances came against his parent club Inter, where Recoba scored a stunning free-kick against his employers who were having a terrible season (they would eventually finish in 8th place, only 4 points ahead of Venezia).

His heroics at Venezia prompted new Inter manager Marcelo Lippi to recall Recoba back to the Nerazzurri, where he appeared more regularly than he did under Simoni or Mircea Lucescu. He became a key player during an ultimately disappointing season for Inter, who again missed out on Champions League football – a failure that would cost Lippi his job. Despite this, Moratti had seen enough from his pet project to offer Recoba a new 6-year deal that would make him the highest paid player in the world. However, things started to go awry soon after. Recoba was banned from football for a year – later reduced to 4 months on appeal – for holding a fake passport upon his arrival in Milan. Several injuries would continue to disrupt his time at Inter, whether it was his knee, his ankle or his shoulder. Pundits in the media started to turn on him as his influential performances became increasingly sporadic, and he no longer took a hold of games. He still produced moments of brilliance, such as a breathtaking individual performance against Roma in 2002 where he scored two and set up another as Inter trounced their rivals 3-1. But for every wonder goal the Uruguayan produced (such as his magnificent solo goal against Lecce in 2002 – see here), there were countless criticisms aimed in his direction. Inter manager Héctor Cúper went public in his persecution of Recoba after poor performances against Lazio on the last day of the season in 2002, and a year later after Inter were sent packing from the semi-finals of the Champions League by local rivals Milan. Cúper would go on to lose his job because of his refusal to play Recoba, which angered Moratti.

Perhaps the highlight of Recoba’s career came in what is considered one of the greatest matches in Serie A history. On the 9th January 2004, Inter hosted Sampdoria in a crucial encounter, with both teams having aspirations for European qualification. Despite an abundance of missing players through injury and suspension, Recoba started the game on the bench. Inter were bombarding forward at every opportunity, but could not find a way past man of the match Francesco Antonioli. Sampdoria played a counter attacking system perfectly, twice catching Inter out – Max Tonetto with the first just before half time, and Vitali Kutuzov with what seemed like the clinching goal in the 83rd minute. Just like Luigi Simoni had done all those years ago, Roberto Mancini called on Recoba to salvage something from the match. And just like he did on that fateful day against Brescia, Recoba instigated a comeback that would go down in history. He played through Obafemi Martins who halved the deficit on 88 minutes. Inter threw everything forward in search of an equalizer, which came in the form of Christian Vieri’s 92nd minute strike. With seconds remaining on the clock, Sampdoria squandered possession feeling sorry for themselves. With 94 minutes on the clock, the ball landed at the feet of Recoba 30 yards from goal and he struck a blistering left-foot shot first time that rustled the back of the net before Antonioli could even react. Once again, a moment of brilliance had sent the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza into raptures. Never quite able to put together a consistent run of acceptable performances, Recoba was shipped out on loan to Torino and Greek outfit Panionios where he would retreat into relative obscurity. At the start of this year, Recoba signed a 3-year deal with boyhood club Danubio.

Although Álvaro Recoba’s story is not a tragic one, it is quite disheartening that a footballer of such sublime talent has faded into obscurity so dramatically. In a week where the technical capabilities of English football are being severely questioned, one could only imagine what England could achieve had they a player with even half the creativity of Recoba. For the moment, Jack Wilshere or Josh McEachran seem the most suitable candidates and while they both may go on to achieve a great deal of success at their respective clubs, they will dream of re-enacting such moments of magic as that Maradona-esque goal against Lecce, or that wonderful comeback against Sampdoria. But fans of the game can also dream what Alvaro Recoba could have achieved had he developed the determination and will-to-win attitude embodied by English football. Perhaps he stayed at Inter for too long, or perhaps it was just never meant to work out for Recoba, but ultimately we can only wonder what could have been for a player who for so-long appeared to be on the verge of greatness.

I just want to thank the Danubio people, this was always my home, I was fortunate to play elsewhere and succeed, but I always said that this was my home.”

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