Uruguay legend Alvaro 'El Chino ' Recoba bids farewell to football

"One last magic act." That's how El Pais, Uruguay's biggest newspaper, chose to headline their preview of Alvaro Recoba's farewell match, which took place on Thursday night in the Gran Parque Central, a stadium he knew so well and lit up so frequently during his playing days with Nacional. Recoba debuted for Danubio back in 1994, but enjoyed his first successes -- and his most recent ones too -- with Nacional, where he became a club idol.

A move to Italy followed in 1997, and Recoba's Inter Milan debut came on the same August day as that of the great Ronaldo. Recoba took all the plaudits, though, as he came off the bench to score two stunning long-range goals and give Inter a 2-1 win from 1-0 down.

The Brazilian is far from the only legend of recent times to share a pitch with Recoba. That list of players provided one of the teams for Thursday's send-off match, as a Nacional XI consisting of current and former players took on a "friends of Recoba" team which included greats such as Carlos Valderrama, Francesco Toldo, Ivan Zamorano, Javier Zanetti and Juan Roman Riquelme among others (Recoba played one half for each team.)

Such is Recoba's standing in the Uruguayan game that the kick-off was taken by Tabare Vazquez, the president of the country. As you might have heard, they take their football seriously in Uruguay.

Either side of Uruguay are two far bigger countries: Argentina, with a population of about 42 million against Uruguay's roughly 3.5m, and Brazil, the fifth most populous country in the world. For all Uruguayans' knowledge of and pride in their glorious football heritage, they are fully aware that in the modern world, theirs is a small country. As such, while Argentine or Brazilian fans are aware of how their own "foreign" players are doing in Europe, Uruguayans often follow their foreign legion far more closely, and take a more active pride in them.

The result of that pride is that Recoba's brilliant debut for Inter is fondly remembered in its own right -- as are the various titles he won during his time at the club; two Serie A titles, two Coppa Italia and two Super Cups as well as the 1997-98 UEFA Cup.

Injury (and, for a few months, a ban handed down after it was discovered his passport was fake) meant Recoba played fewer matches at his peak than he might have done otherwise. But while he might be remembered by European fans as never quite having fulfilled his potential, he was a standard bearer back home. What's more, some enforced rest in his younger years seems to have served him well later on, as he retires aged 40 having been an important player in Nacional's success in recent years.

Of course, he had his fair share of great moments in his homeland, too. Prior to his send-off match he told TV journalists: "If I could only relive one moment from my career, it would be the free kick against Penarol."

It wasn't just any free kick; in the 94th minute of Uruguay's biggest derby in November 2014, with the score tied at 1-1, Recoba lined up a free kick 25 yards out and sent it curling over the wall and screaming into the net to claim a 2-1 win for Nacional. It wasn't the first goal Recoba had scored against Penarol by any means, but it would prove the most memorable.

That win over their great rivals helped Nacional to claim the 2014 Apertura title, and another Clasico with Penarol proved decisive at the end of the 2014-15 season, as the sides faced off to decide the Uruguayan championship (Penarol having won the Clausura title in the second half of the season.) Recoba had the chance to write one final chapter in a glorious career, but fluffed his lines; sent on as an 88th-minute substitute, he missed a late penalty. Glory came anyway, though, as Nacional won 3-2 and were crowned champions.

Thursday evening's send-off was predictably more notable for some of the video messages shown on the big screen at half-time than it was for the football (which didn't last anything like 45 minutes per half.)

There were messages from former Nacional player Luis Suarez -- who wanted to hang around after Uruguay's recent World Cup qualifiers to take part, but was unable to due to Barcelona's upcoming clash with Real Madrid -- and from Recoba's former Inter teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as well as from Massimo Moratti, the man who as Inter president took Recoba to Italy, and later made him, for a time, the highest-paid player in world football.

Smiles were raised by the presentation of a special memento -- a small patch of turf (fully layered as if it were part of an actual pitch) with a miniature corner flag. The gift was in celebration of Recoba's reported record number of goals scored direct from corners (a gol olimpico, as it's known in South America), and the flag was the same one he'd been standing next to when he scored his last such goal.

Perhaps the best tribute, combining affection for Recoba the person with admiration for Recoba the footballer, came from his brother, Fabian. "When we were kids there was a patch of grass near our house and we'd go to play there," Fabian said on the big screen. "We'd pretend we were the Uruguayan national team, playing in the Estadio Centenario... to us, that patch of grass was the Centenario. So years later, to go to a match there and see Alvaro actually playing in the Centenario, it was incredible."

"I didn't expect [Nacional] to give me a send-off match," Recoba told the cameras after the game.

Given the place he holds in the affections of so many Uruguayan fans, it would have seemed bizarre if they hadn't. The magician deserved the chance for one last trick.