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The sad tale of El Chino, the greatest lazy romantic in the game

A tribute to the great El Chino, one of the most mesmerizing, yet unexpressed talents in the history of football.

You certainly asked yourself: why in the world was Álvaro Recoba nicknamed El Chino? It's easy to explain: just look carefully at a photo of him and try not to think whether Christopher Columbus didn't actually land in Asia, as he planned, instead of the so-called New World.

It's hard to explain why it is so painful to accept Recoba's retirement, especially if you think about him being considered one of the most overrated and overpaid players in Serie A history. But there was something about him that went beyond his mere football abilities, something deeper and more spiritual. Something that made Moratti fall in love with him at first sight and believe in him even when nobody else did. It was probably the idea of his way of playing football that drew everyone in -- and he reminded you every time you saw him on the pitch, floating around and creating beautiful plays with his magical left foot. He was one of the last truly romantic players in the game of football, as he played to elevate the sport from the pragmatic need of winning titles and cups and tried to turn it into a real art form.

El Chino arrived at Inter almost on the sly, in the shadow of a giant like Ronaldo -- the real Ronaldo -- and found his way into Inter supporters' hearts right away, surprising everyone from his very first official appearance in Nerazzurro. It was the first week of the 97/98 Serie A season, a match in which everybody was expecting O' Fenomeno to be the key player, Recoba ended up grabbing the spotlight from the Brazilian and scoring an incredible brace with his bewitched left foot in just 20 minutes to help his team get back from a 0-1 deficit and earn the three points. Obviously, he scored just one more goal that season, but such an unexpected debut helped him become a fan favorite, even if they probably didn't even notice his arrival that summer.

Alvaro spent 10 years playing for Inter -- apart from a half season loan to Venezia -- with his best season being the 200/01 one when he scored 15 goals in 42 total appearances. Unfortunately, he was involved in a fake passport scandal in January of 2001 and he was punished with a one-year ban, later reduced to only four months on appeal. At the time of the scandal, El Chino had just renewed his contract with Inter, becoming the highest paid football player in the world, a title he kept until 2003.

El Chino didn't become the best player in the world just because he didn't want to

He left Inter in 2007 joining Torino on loan. There he was coached by Walter Novellino, who already managed him in his time at Venezia. He wasn't the same Chino anymore, though -- he was plagued by injuries and he never had the opportunity of playing with consistency. Torino could have signed him for free after the loan, instead, they decided to let him go, so he agreed to join Panionios in 2008. He spent just one year in Greece and in December of 2009 they mutually agreed to terminate his contract because of his high wages and poor performances.

Alvaro had just one thing left to do -- going back where his legend started. On Christmas Eve of 2009, he signed with Danubio, the club which he made his debut as a professional player. Exactly like he did when he was younger, Recoba left the team a year later to join Uruguayan side Nacional de Montevideo, for which he played the following four years. On June 14, 2015, he played his last official match, winning the title with his team for the second time in three years. The legend of El Chino was over.

He officially announced his retirement at the end of March 2016.

"El Chino didn't become the best player in the world just because he didn't want to" Veron said about him. "It is not that I didn't want to" Recoba answered 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." Anyone who had the luck to see him play surely thought that that kid with narrow eyes and a sweet left foot could have given much more to the game of football for some reason he couldn't do it.

The reasons for his failed to transition from a promising prospect to true legend of football could be summed up in three basic points:

  1. His laziness, a flaw that has always been acknowledged by him and not only related to his professional life. His wife, in fact, once described him in a Gazzetta Dello Sport interview as "lazy and romantic". Alvaro was always late for training - his teammates during his loan at Venezia even gifted him a watch for that - and he appeared indolent on the field from time to time like he was waiting for the game to come at him instead of him trying to integrate into the flow of the game.
  2. The lack of a precise position. Second striker, trequartista, left or right winger; none of them fully fitted him. Probably because the only role he felt comfortable doing was being Recoba.
  3. The lack of faith from his managers. Reading the first two points of this list it's not so hard to understand why they were so reluctant in letting him play, especially in his earlier seasons in Nerazzurro, when the club was spasmodically looking for wins and titles.

What put so many expectations on El Chino as a football player was his incredible set of skills, a package that not so many players have/had.

His most dangerous ability, of course, was his  left foot. He had so much power and accuracy in that limb that he was able to score almost from every position and distance. Like, literally every position.

The things he was able to do with that foot were countless. He was a threat every time his team earned a set piece, whether he was passing the ball to a teammate or he tried to score. And what kind of crazy genius would he be if he hadn't in his wide repertoire of skills the corner kick goal? He loved to surprise the opposing keeper shooting straight from the corner flag. He scored 6 of them during his career but only one with an Inter shirt on.

He was way more than just a precise shooter, though. As much as he loved to punish opposing keepers with his almost unstoppable shots, he also was extremely talented at making jaw-dropping plays while dribbling past anyone who wanted to take away the ball from him. You could never guess what he was going to do next and he loved to entertain his supporters with slaloms, roulettes and other amazing tricks.

Despite your laziness and your unexpressed potential, thank you for being one of us. Thank you because you were unique. Thank you because you made us remember that our beloved sport was much more than a simple matter of results and business operations. Football is art and you helped us remind it and fell in love with it, once again.

There won't be another Alvaro Recoba, for better or for worse, in at least a thousand years, and that is what makes you a legend.