“The best player in the world has already played in Rosario, his name was Carlovich,” Diego Maradona had said in 1993.
On Friday, Tomás Felipe Carlovich, nicknamed El Trinche, a legend in Argentine football not only for his repertoire of skills but also for the way in which he turned his back on fame, passed away after having been assaulted during a robbery attempt two days earlier. He was 74.
Carlovich, though universally acknowledged as one of the best footballers to have come out of Argentina, never played for the national team. When called up to the national team, he did not turn up, saying that he had gone fishing instead.
“He is the most marvellous player I have ever seen,” Jose Pekerman once said of the central midfielder.
Cesare Luis Menotti had said, “I picked him for the national team but he didn’t show up. I can’t remember if he had gone fishing or was on an island: his excuse was that he couldn’t get back because the river level was too high.”
— Javier Mascherano (@Mascherano) May 8, 2020
Jorge Valdano, a World Cup winner in 1986, said Carlovich is a “symbol of a romantic football that practically does not exist anymore”.
Marcelo Bielsa had once said he followed El Trinche around rundown stadiums of Argentina’s lower leagues to watch his every move.
“He did things that were against the law of gravity,” Carlos Aimar, one of his teammates, had said.
The greatest praise for Carlovich’s legend came from Maradona. Asked upon moving to Newell’s Old Boys in 1993 what it meant to be the best footballer in the world, the ex-Napoli star had replied, “the best player in the world has already played in Rosario, his name was Carlovich.”
Recently, Maradona met Carlovich and gave him a shirt with ‘Trinche, you were better than me’ written on it.
The match that made him a national legend was when he ran the Argentina national team ragged just before the 1974 World Cup. The Argentina team, playing a team formed of local Rosario footballers, was down 0-3 at half-time and demanded that Carlovich be benched for the second half.
El Trinche’s signature move was said to be the ‘double nutmeg’, where he would drag the ball through the legs of his opponent twice in a single passage of play.
One of the reasons for the enduring mystery around the legend of Carlovich, the son of a Croatian plumber who drove crowds wild with his brand of creole football, is that he played in Argentina’s lower divisions even when bigger opportunities came calling and there remains very little visual proof of his ability.
Carlovich had described his unwillingness to forge a glamorous career out of football in this way: “What does it mean to ‘make it’? In truth I never had any other ambition than to play football. Above all, to stay close to my neighbourhood, my folks’ house, to stay with El Vasco Artola, one of my best friends who took me as a kid to play for Sporting Bigand… I’m a solitary person. When I played at Central Cordoba, if I could, I would change by myself in the kitman’s office rather than the dressing room. I like peace and quiet, it’s not a question of attitude.”
Author Alejandro Caravario, in a book on Carlovich had decribed him thus: “El Trinche was the most complete expression of Argentine football. A man who did not accept the rules was not interested in them.”
“Carlovich remains the antithesis of Leo Messi (the other left-footed genius to have emerged from Rosario) – his fame and the best of his career stayed in Santa Fe and because of this he is adored. One of those lyrical, almost poetic players who no longer exist,” wrote Guillem Balague in Messi’s authorised biography.
Carlovich, having lived as a local icon in Rosario all his life, was reportedly attacked by an youth on Wednesday, and his bicycle was robbed. He suffered head injuries in the attack and went into a coma which he did not recover from. Four youths have since been arrested but have been released for lack of evidence.
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