Argentina mourns on Friday morning the tragic passing of one of its greatest ever players. Though the wider world might not be aware of Tomás ‘El Trinche’ Carlovich, for those that witnessed his talents there were few better to grace the pitch. And so it is with shock and great sadness that football supporters from across the country react to the news that the 74-year-old died from head injuries suffered in a robbery.
Carlovich had been in intensive care since Wednesday after the icon had been attacked in the street for his bicycle in his home city of Rosario. The injuries caused a stroke and Trinche slipped into a coma before requiring emergency surgery on Friday. An operation which would ultimately prove too much.
A heartbreakingly tragic end for one of Argentinian football’s cult heroes. The grief is still raw and the injustice of such a senseless death will never be forgotten yet nothing can overshadow the legend of El Trinche that already exists.
Upon arriving in Argentina, my now brother-in-law told me about this remarkable player who people claim was the greatest ever despite never playing for the national team and spending his career in the lower leagues. As an obsessive football fan, I was already hooked and so with little more information than the name ‘Trinche’ I began trying to find articles and stories to learn more of this mythical player.
Stumbling across Michael Robinson’s 2011 documentary for Canal+ only fuelled my intrigue and prompted me to write my first ever article which ended up published by In Bed With Maradona.
How could you not be captured by such a story? The adoration from the people of Rosario, the testament of the likes of former Argentina managers César Luis Menotti and José Pékerman, rumours of being paid bonuses for the number of nutmegs performed and the tales of this lower league magician tormenting the national team.
It was April 1974 with Argentina preparing for the World Cup that a friendly against a regional XI in Rosario was organised. The local giants of Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central understandably dominated with the talents of Mario Zanabria from the black and red half and a young Mario Kempes representing the yellow and blue among a decent regional side. But one surely not strong enough for the might of the Albiceleste.
Selecting five players from each Rosario side left one space and coaches Juan Carlos Montes and Carlos Griguol opted for Tomás Carlovich. The 27-year-old midfielder plying his trade for relative city minnows Central Córdoba had come through at Central but opted for the quieter life of lower league football.
Unwilling to allow that to hold him back Trinche took full advantage of his moment on stage and in the glare of the spotlight outshone all those supposed to star in West Germany in a couple of months. Leading 2-0 at half time with Carlovich at his mischievous best, the midfielder’s non-appearance after the break sparked rumours that Argentina had requested his withdrawal. Rosario would end up 3-1 winners regardless but the day belonged to El Trinche.
By his own admission, this son of a Yugoslavian immigrant deeply attached to his familial ties in Rosario, never aspired to be a professional footballer and while Rosario Central first offered an opportunity to fulfil the dream of most (or the non-black and red half anyway) growing up in the port city, Trinche was different.
A brief spell at Flandria upon his release from Central followed before a return home with Central Córdoba, the first of three spells at the club that Trinche would later describe as one of the loves of his life.
Leading Los Charrúas to the Primera C title in 1973, the first of two career titles – the second coming at the same level with the club in 1982 – may appear beneath a player of such quality but it was everything for Trinche. And it was this mentality rather than a lack of talent that prevented the maestro achieving more.
“I always played the same, with the same effort,” Trinche said in an interview with El Gráfico .
“Maybe if I’d gone to France or the [New York] Cosmos, a chance I had at the time, it would have changed my life. For me, playing at Central Córdoba was like playing at Real Madrid.”
His amateurish appearance with shirt unbuttoned, chest out and socks rolled down made him instantly recognisable and a move to Mendoza to play for Independiente Rivadavia did nothing to lessen Trinche’s appeal. An eventual taste of top flight football came with Colón in 1977 but lasted only a handful of appearances before spells back in Rosario and Mendoza.
And while Trinche may be inextricably linked to his home city, his time spent across the country in the west added fuel to his legend. A cameo for Andes Talleres Sport Club produced a stunning win over AC Milan during their 1979 tour of South America while stories at Independiente Rivadavia of the playmaker prioritising his travel back to Rosario display an endearing lack of professionalism.
“We played against San Martín and Tomás [Trinche] wanted to go that afternoon to Rosario. But if he played the whole game he missed the buses so he was sent off in the first half. He bathed and left running. He never took anything too seriously,” former teammate Hugo Memoli reminisces.
While most players would justifiably be questioned for such an outlook, Trinche simply wanted to enjoy his football and live a simple life. Even when self-confessed fan César Luis Menotti came calling for the national team in 1976, the former Argentina manager admitted, “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.”
Even the greatest of personal achievement was of no interest to Trinche. His family, his friends, the neighbourhood and fishing were all more important.
Although this apparent lack of ambition may have prevented wider acknowledgement of his talent, those in Argentina knew Trinche’s true worth. In 1993, when Diego Maradona returned to the country to play for Newell’s Old Boys, he had established himself as the greatest player of his generation, possibly all-time but when a journalist commented that the greatest footballer had arrived in Rosario, Maradona responded by saying “The best footballer has already played in Rosario, and his name is Carlovich.”
Trinche’s career may have been like a series of Chinese whispers as tales of his achievements were passed from person to person without much in the way of evidence but it only adds to this romantic notion of unfulfilled potential. Tomás Carlovich may have wanted nothing more than peace and quiet but his legacy in Argentina should be celebrated louder than ever today.