Álvaro Recoba: The willowy outsider artist who made underachievement cool

Pass notes

Two parts vampy sapling, one part boy-next-door goofball, topped with a generous sprinkling of magic dust and mystery. There he goes, your man with the Che Guevara tattoo, scoring the best goal you've ever seen and then shuffling back to his deckchair on the peripheries for a nap.

Did he get injured a lot? Yes. Did he like running? No. Should he have made more of his talent? Maybe. But Recoba, an outsider artist who always looked like he saw through the pantomime, always played the game on his own terms. The patron saint of joyful underachievement.


Career in five steps

1. "He was a genius," Recoba's brother Fabián once said. "Even aged four, he was nutmegging the big kids." It would take 13 more years for him to crack the big time with Danubio, but progress was swift: his form there prompted a scramble for his signature, Nacional eventually trumping rivals Peñarol after a bit of behind-the-scenes bickering. 

2. Recoba was fast-tracked into the Uruguay side, making his debut as a willowy teenager in January 1995. He replaced hero Enzo Francescoli in a friendly against Spain and wasted little time in putting down a marker, flummoxing Fernando Hierro with only his second touch in international football. 68 more caps and ten goals would ensue over the 12 years that followed.

3. A run of 30 goals in 27 league games for Nacional caught the attention of Sandro Mazzola, the legendary Italian forward, who convinced Internazionale president Massimo Moratti to take a chance on the forward in the summer of 1997. But while Recoba made an explosive start to life in Italy (of which more below), he would be shunted out on loan at the end of his first season.

4. Venezia was Recoba's destination and suited him down to the ground. "I felt less pressure than at Inter," he later admitted, and his performances certainly bore that out: he scored 11 times – one of them, brilliantly, against Inter – and set up nine more in 19 games, becoming an instant idol at Estadio Pier Luigi Penzo. He returned to San Siro with his stock higher than ever; Inter rewarded him with a new contract that briefly made him the best-paid player in the world.

5. Over eight more seasons in Serie A, and with a helping hand from Football Italia and Pro Evolution Soccer (Adriano + Recoba = carnage), Recoba jinked, feinted and flickered his way into our hearts. There were lows (frequent injuries, a hate-hate relationship with Héctor Cúper) but enough ludicrous goals and moments of jaw-slackening inspiration that he departed a club legend in 2008, bound for a spell in Greece and a lengthy Indian summer back in his homeland.


The best of times

They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Luckily for Recoba, he never needed one at Inter, upstaging fellow debutant Ronaldo (who hogged the attentions at their joint unveiling to such an extent that the latter later admitted to feeling like "an imposter") with a masterful cameo against Brescia in August 1997.

A lofty pass completion rate is all well and good, but when it comes to winning over new fans, you really can't go wrong with clobbering the ball into the top corner from 30 yards out and then curling home a free-kick to win the match. 


The worst of times

Recoba was one of 15 footballers in Italy to be caught up in what came to be known as the Passaportopoli scandal. Seven clubs were accused of circumventing rules governing the use of non-EU players, essentially conjuring spurious European citizenship documents for foreign imports who had vague links to the Old Continent. 

Recoba was granted a Spanish passport after Inter sent representatives to chase up leads in Tenerife. But authorities later deemed that the documents used by the club had been falsified and the Uruguayan paid the price, getting hit with a four-month ban from football.


Nickname rating

Ah, cultural relativism. Come in and have a seat. We've been expecting you. Yep, Recoba's nickname is one of those whose utterance makes your innards tense up a little bit and wets your lips with the words "Is that... OK?"

They call him El Chino – the Chinese man – and rather than plunging head-first into questions relating to the acceptability of using national and racial ascriptions in jest, we shall instead simply note that Recoba doesn't really look anything like a Chinese person and move on. 3/10


Extra-curricular activities

Nothing much to see here: Recoba has always shied away from the limelight as far as his personal life goes. In fact, according to wife Lorena Perrone, he's downright boring. "He does nothing, or as little as possible," she once said. "He only gets dressed if I get clothes ready for him. He only leaves the house when he has to – and for the shortest time possible." I know, I know – you can almost feel the passion.

About the closest Recoba ever got to a scandal came in 2010, when former team-mate Fabián O'Neill claimed that, in their youth, the pair had hosted a series of wild parties at the home of Recoba's future parents-in-law. "We had a load of women in his house – it was barbaric," O'Neill claimed. Recoba laughed the story off with customary panache, saying: "If he organised that at my house, he didn't invite me!"


Key quotes 

On being one of a kind: "I always just wanted to entertain people. What I did, I did my way."

On his distaste for fitness work: "It's like school: there are subjects that you like more and subjects that you like less. Well, I do not like to train the physical part of football, but I have to do it." 

Massimo Moratti: "Recoba isn't just a footballer; he is football. He did things that normal players just don't do."

Juan Sebastián Verón: "The only reason he wasn't the best player in the world is that he didn't want to be."

Francesco Toldo: “He would be quiet for 80 minutes every match, then score with a free-kick or an incredible bomb from outside the area. We always shouted to him, 'Chino, run!' He'd say, 'No, no. Not today.'"

Carlos Valderrama: "I always follow South Americans who play in my position. When I saw this Uruguayan nutmegging an opponent, I said, 'This is a man after my own heart.' Then he scored a free-kick and I said, 'Yes, this is my guy.' A lot of players run round a lot, but El Chino made the difference. You fall in love with players like that. I thank him for the magic."


Last seen

Recoba only retired a couple of years ago, getting an emotional send-off in his testimonial at Gran Parque Central in Montevideo. Valderrama, Toldo, Iván Zamorano, Marcelo Gallardo, Andrés D'Alessandro, Juan Román Riquelme and Javier Zanetti led an all-star cast on the field, while even Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez made time to attend. 

"He is one of the all-time greats," said Vázquez. "He was an artist. He played football with love."


Did you know? 

Most players – even dead-ball experts – would be delighted to score directly from a corner just once in their careers. Recoba laughs in the faces of most players: he scored a staggering total of SIX goles olímpicos (of course South Americans have a name for them) over the course of his career.

"It makes no difference if there are players on the posts," he explained after his final killer corner, for Nacional in 2015. "The ball comes in dipping and spinning, and generally teams don't put tall players on the line anyway. If I hit it well, it's very hard for an outfield player to stop unless he's hanging from the crossbar."