Álvaro Recoba: The Forgotten Genius of El Chino

Álvaro Alexánder Recoba Rivero was born in 1976 in Montevideo, Uruguay. He went by the unusual nickname of “El Chino” (the Chinese) because of his Oriental features.

He was first spotted by Sandro Mazzola, star of the legendary Inter team of the 1960s, playing for Nacional of Montevideo. Although he’d honed his considerable skills at the Academy of Danubio FC, the team that also produced such talents as Diego Forlan and Edison Cavani. Only 20 at the time, Recoba was in the midst of a run that would see him score 30 goals in 27 league games. Mazzola, convinced he had stumbled across a genius, notified his friend, Inter Milan chief Massimo Moratti, who promptly stumped up £15 million (the first and only fee Recoba would command) then shipped him over to Italy.

In his first game in Serie A, Recoba scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Brescia. The first a bonafide ‘thunderbastard’ from nearly 40 yards out, the second a free-kick that defied the laws of physics. A stunning debut from the mop-topped starlet at the imposing San Siro, even managing to overshadow the other debutant, Ronaldo.

The young Uruguayan’s left foot possessed power and precision, he was beautifully balanced and deceptively fast, yet Recoba’s diminutive frame struggled with the hatchet-men of Italian defences across the league as they bullied and kicked him out of games.

His second season saw him loaned out to struggling Venezia. With 11 goals in 19 games, he was almost single-handedly responsible for saving them from the drop. Before he left, his teammates gifted him a watch, nothing to do with his goals, he was regularly late for training.

Naturally, the Nerazzurri wanted him back for the 1999/00 season where he scored 10 goals in 28 games and set up countless more. Moratti repaid this form with a £4 million after-tax annual salary at the end of that season, making him the world’s highest paid player at that time. However, this is where things started to go wrong. Partly down to injuries but he also picked up a ban for acquiring a counterfeit passport.

He still produced moments of magic albeit sporadically: the extraordinary free-kicks, the magnificent long rangers from outside the box and the beautifully weighted passes. The ball legitimately could be described as being ‘glued to his feet’. A phenomenal solo goal against Lecce springs to mind.

In 2002/03, under Héctor Cúper, Recoba somewhat remarkably enjoyed arguably the finest season of his Inter career. Hernan Crespo had been bought to replace Ronaldo and partner Christian Vieri and the three players were instrumental in the run to the semi-finals of the Champions League. The relationship with his manager was strained to say the least; Cúper at one point went public in his persecution of Recoba after poor performances against Lazio on the final day of the season.

The problem Moratti had was that managers struggled to find a system that suited Recoba’s languid style. The Inter principal hired Alberto Zaccheroni who gave the Uruguayan a free role. Despite boasting an incredible goal per minute ratio under Zaccheroni, injuries were taking a huge toll (knee, ankle, shoulder) and he struggled to get consistent games.

In 2007, Recoba was loaned to Torino, where it was hoped he would recapture some form but alas, he succumbed to injuries that hampered his playing time.

Next was a move to Panionios where he became arguably the most famous player for the Greek club. It was a similar story with injuries, unfortunately. He spent a season and a half back at Danubio where it all began before then re-joining Nacional. He did have a renaissance as he helped them win the Uruguayan Championship in his first season. Four seasons with Nacional followed which included winning the championship in his final season.

Sadly, he would retire in March 2015.

Juan Sebastian Veron believed Recoba only didn’t become the best player in the world because he himself did not want to. Massimo Moratti described him as being able to do things that normal players did not – he even expressed a preference for Recoba over Ronaldo.

Recoba will be remembered for his outstanding goals rather than his goalscoring figures. He did score 11 goals (69 caps) for the Uruguay national team, participating at the 2002 World Cup and two Copa America tournaments. Although Álvaro Recoba’s story is not a tragic one, it is a disheartening one. A footballer of such sublime talent faded into obscurity so dramatically.

He almost transformed his natural genius into footballing gold. Almost.

About the author


Johnny McLelland

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