Empoli vs Inter Throwback: Recoba’s Lob from the Midfield Line

According to his Inter teammate Juan Sebastian Veron, the only reason why Alvaro Recoba didn’t become the best football player in the world is because “he didn’t want to.” El Chino’s debut season in Serie A perfectly summarized the future career of a player whose talent was equaled only by his indolence.

Recoba tallied just three goals that year, but the one he scored to Empoli on January 25th, 1998 – a deadly left-foot lob from his midfield line (!) – instantly gained a spot in the Nerazzurri’s hall of fame, and saved the day for coach Gigi Simoni’s side, who were down 0-1 to the Toscani.

Uruguayan striker Alvaro Recoba joined La Pinetina from Nacional Montevideo in the summer market session of 2017. He was a 21-year-old good prospect, but his arrival in Milan was totally overshadowed by the much more clamorous landing of the Fenomeno Ronaldo Luis Nazario da Lima at President Massimo Moratti’s court.

Recoba was meant to be only the fourth choice in an attacking line that, on top of His Football Majesty Ronaldo, also featured the experienced Marco Branca and Chilean forward Ivan Zamorano. However, it became clear from the very first campionato matchday that Inter had somehow put their hands on an authentic raw diamond.

On August 31st, 1997, the day of Ronaldo’s Serie A debut, the scene was indeed stolen by substitute Recoba. Coach Simoni sent him in with the Nerazzurri surprisingly down 0-1 to Brescia, and El Chino repaid him with two formidable screamers in five minutes to put Inter in the driving seat.   

But then, as press and TV commentators started to frantically flip through South American football almanacs to find more about this boy with almond-shaped eyes (hence his nickname El Chino) and a magic left foot, Alvaro Recoba disappeared from the calcio radar. Perhaps he was showing already some signs of that discontinuity that would limit his career, or a tendency to do his bare minimum – to put it mildly – during training sessions.

The fact remains that, after his initial exploit, Recoba was swallowed up into the Nerazzurri’s bench not to be seen again. Until that day.

Inter paid a visit to relegation-battling Empoli on January 25th of the following year. The Toscani’s coach was a young Luciano Spalletti. Gigi Simoni and his boys were coming from an unexpected 0-1 loss to Bari, and had no other option than winning, if they wanted to avoid losing contact with capolista Juventus.

The Black and Blues were having one of those days – one of those that any supporter of Pazza Inter (“Crazy Inter”) knows very well. Empoli had taken the lead after just two minutes, thanks to a formidable goal by Carmine Esposito. Defender Stefano Bianconi’s long-range cross had found him all alone in Inter’s box, ready to beat Gianluca Pagliuca with an acrobatic right-foot lob.

Ronaldo was not in his best day, so Gigi Simoni decided to play his trump card with just 20 minutes left. The coach sent in Alvaro Recoba in place of midfielder Francesco Moriero, hoping to stage the same play seen against Brescia. Much can be said about the Uruguayan starlet, but not that he wasn’t good at maximizing his chances.

“Esposito scored with a beautiful lob? Well, look what I’m going to do now.”

In the 81st minute, the ball ended on El Chino’s foot after a normal tackle between two players. Recoba was close to his midfield line, some 50 meters far from the opponent goal. In the span of one second, he stopped the ball, adjusted it, raised his head to notice that goalkeeper Marco Roccati was incautiously far from his posts, and then literally teleported it into Empoli’s goal with a millimetric precision lob. All like it was the simplest thing in the world.

Well, perhaps for Recoba doing that was really the simplest thing in the world.   

El Chino spent most of his career wearing the Nerazzurri jersey. However, in 10 years with Inter he collected only 175 caps, an average of 17 per season. He could have likely found more playing time and continuity away from La Pinetina but…he just didn’t want to. Alvaro Recoba was not a troublemaker, a hothead, or a party animal. He was just…lazy.

The raw diamond never got fully polished. But when he was in one of his days, he didn’t need anything or anyone to shine his own light.


January 25, 1998 – Serie A 1997-98 Round 17

3′ Esposito (E), 81′ Recoba (I)

EMPOLI (3-4-3): Roccati; Fusco, Baldini (53′ Bettella), Bianconi; Binho (80′ Lucenti); Pane, Tonetto, Ficini; Bonomi (64′ Florjancic), Esposito, Cappellini (Mazzi, Pecorari, Martusciello, Bisoli) Coach: Spalletti
INTER (4-4-2): Pagliuca; Bergomi, Zanetti, West, Sartor; Djorkaeff (68′ Milanese), Winter, Simeone, Moriero (70′ Recoba); Ronaldo, Branca (56′ Zamorano) (Mazzantini, Galante, Colonnese, Rivas) Coach: Simoni

REFEREE: Mr. Pellegrino from Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Baldini, Pane (E), Winter, Recoba (I)