31st August 1997
Inter 2-1 Brescia
August 31st, 1997. Britain wakes up to the news that Diana, Princess of Wales has been killed in a car crash in Paris. Understandably, the day’s football schedule is cancelled. If, however, you’re a callow teen unaffected/insensitive enough to still want your football fix (as your writer was), you only have to turn to Channel Four, where Football Italia is at the San Siro to see Inter take on newly-promoted Brescia in a particularly hotly-anticipated Serie A curtain-raiser.
This was well into Massimo Moratti’s era of big spending, and the summer had seen the Nerazzurri break the world transfer record by shelling out £19m on Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldo. However, the brilliant Brazilian would be eclipsed on this day by two other debutants…
First, 30-year-old Dario Hubner, making his Serie A bow, gave everyone a shock by opening the scoring for the visiting side. Despite Inter’s bombardment, Brescia would cling onto this lead for over an hour – until the real star of the show entered the fray. With 20 minutes remaining, an increasingly desperate Luigi Simoni threw on a 21-year-old Uruguyan forward, spotted by club legend (and friend of Moratti) Sandro Mazzola and expensively-acquired from Nacional. With 10 minutes to go, the toothy young man, sporting the trademark ‘curtains’ hairstyle that besmirched the head of many an adolescent that decade, collected a pass from Benoit Cauet, took a touch, and suddenly unleashed an absolutely devastating thunderbolt with his left foot from at least 35 yards that whistled like a doodlebug into the top right hand corner. An awed San Siro erupted, but the substitute wasn’t finished. With minutes remaining, Inter won a free kick about 30 yards out, and again the youngster stepped up to whip an effort high over the wall that dipped perfectly into the top left corner. And so, the dreaded ‘script’ had been delivered with a twist; a debuting South American had bagged the points for Inter – it just wasn’t the one everyone had tuned in to see. And just like that, Alvaro Recoba introduced himself to Italian football.
Recoba seemed to be the definitive ‘can’t miss’ prospect. Used sparingly in that debut season at Inter, he still popped up now and then to remind everyone of the Swiss army knife of a left foot he possessed, memorably “doing a Beckham” against Empoli. The following season he was sent to Venezia for further seasoning and ran riot, pulling the Venetians away from the relegation zone with 11 goals and nine assists in 19 games – including a pearler against his parent club. The Uruguyan returned to the Giueseppe Meazza after his brief stay in Venice and seemed to enjoy a breakthrough year, playing regularly and scoring 10 league goals. It certainly convinced Moratti – a huge Recoba fan from the moment the ball left the player’s boot against Brescia – to make him the world’s best-paid player, with a startling contract of £4m a year after tax.
However, Recoba never quite lived up to his early promise. His Venezia spell aside, consistency had never been his strong point, and he struggled to produce with any frequency the kind of form to justify his salary and billing. Often seeming lightweight against your typical, casually psychotic Italian centre back, he was also notoriously injury prone, and rarely seemed 100% fit. His problems were compounded when it was discovered that he possessed a fake passport, which led to him receiving a one-year ban. Although this was commuted to four months, it was nevertheless a spell on the sidelines he could have done without. The appointment of Hector Cuper in 2001 meant more bad news for the Uruguayan. There was little room in the cautious Cuper’s system for a player of Recoba’s mercurial talents and he more often than not found himself limited to the role of impact sub – if used at all. Despite this being eminently understandable, given Recoba’s erratic form, Moratti was furious at the treatment of one of his favourites, and failure to accommodate Recoba was cited as a prominent reason for the Argentine’s sacking in 2003.
Despite scoring against Senegal in the 2002 world cup, he never quite delivered for his country either, with 10 goals from 69 caps, and it’s a shame that he missed out on the golden age of Uruguyan football that followed not long after his peak, with Oscar Tabarez leading La Celeste to the world cup semi finals and then Copa America glory in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Ultimately, Recoba ran out of chances. Inter shipped him out –first to Torino on loan in 2007, and then for good, to Greek side Panionios, the following year. He made little impact at either, washing up back in Uruguay by 2010. There, he has recaptured some of his former glories. Returning to Nacional, he’s still scoring goals and winning trophies at the age of 36 – and in May scored a classy winner against Defensor Sporting to clinch his team’s 44th title.
It’s always sad when a player with the potential to be one of the greats ends up as something of a journeyman. But Recoba seems to have few regrets – and besides, how many players could top that debut?