The light went out on the greatest footballer you probably never saw, and in the horrendously random and banal way that lives are sometimes taken. Last Wednesday, Tomas Carlovich was riding his bicycle through the Belgrano neighborhood of Rosario, where he was born and lived most of his 73 years. A man struck Carlovich on the head in an attempt to steal his bike. Carlovich feel to the ground, slipped into a coma and, two days later, was pronounced dead.
I said "probably" above because, if you happen to have been watching second division football in Argentina in the 1970s and early 1980s, you probably did see him and you definitely heard of him. Just like Cesar Luis Menotti, Jose Pekerman and Marcelo Bielsa -- three former Argentina managers who will testify of his greatness -- saw him.
Or you can ask Diego Maradona. When he signed for Rosario's Newell's Old Boys in 1993 and local media reported that the greatest player in the world was now calling their city home, he corrected them: "The greatest of them all is already here. His name is Carlovich."
Maradona, of course, never saw "El Trinche" play. Second division games weren't broadcast in Argentina at the time. Neither, for that matter, did Lionel Messi, who was born and raised just over a mile away a year after he retired. That didn't stop Maradona from giving him a signed shirt with the inscription "you were better than me" when the two met earlier this year. Nor does it stop "Rosarinos" from debating who their most gifted native son was: the tall, gangly midfielder their fathers and grandfathers swooned over, or the small, compact forward at Barcelona with six Ballons d'Or.
The man known simply as "El Trinche," or "the fork" -- and, no, nobody knows where that nickname came from, not even him -- exists somewhere at the tip of the pyramid formed by myth, legend and reality. Myths aren't real, but sometimes are no less true. Legends are founded in history, but when that history is mostly an oral one, they grow uncontrolled. Reality is what actually happened, but when all we have to authenticate events nearly a half-century ago are newspaper clippings and eyewitness accounts, we question what we hear.
The way people like Pekerman -- who described Carlovich as the greatest talent Argentina ever produced -- talk about him, you'd think he's football's Sidd Finch. But maybe he's more like Earl "The Goat" Manigault. He had the double dunk -- dunking with his left hand, catching the ball with his right and then dunking again all while hanging in mid-air on a single jump -- and "El Trinche" had the double nutmeg, nudging the ball through a befuddled opponent's legs and then, with his next touch, sending it back through his legs the other way as the poor man turned around.
The only video evidence we have is this sequence from his final game, when he was 42 years old. He doesn't run much, as you would expect, but then he never ran very much and as Jorge Valdano, who hails from 60 miles up the road but began his career in Rosario, put it, he was a victim of the changing game of football.
The 1970s marked the time when Argentina embraced specialist fitness coaches and adopted a more physical and faster game, even in Rosario, which had been known for its languid, technically sublime style.
"Carlovich was in the right place, at the wrong time," Valdano said.
Despite his 6-foot frame, "El Trinche" wasn't one for physical contact. He preferred to sit and run the game and his speed of thought more than made up for his sluggishness of foot. He once talked about how, before he even received the ball, he could see himself controlling it and hitting it exactly where he wanted to, where, invariably, there would be a teammate waiting. His ability to launch pinpoint 40-yard passes did the rest.
Carlovich saw things others didn't, or didn't see until much later, he had the technique to execute them and he had a unique relationship with the ball: it did what he wanted it to do and you could not get it off him. (One "El Trinche" story -- unverified, of course -- has him keeping the ball for a full 10 minutes, driving opponents to madness, like a basketball team with a lead in the pre-shot clock era.) And that combination of intelligence and aesthetics made fans and coaches alike swoon, as much as his distinctly nonchalant, 1970s look: long hair, big moustache and a gangling, unkempt look.
This may be the point at which you wonder what the catch was. How did this phenom only play two games of top-flight football?
Those who knew Carlovich agree. He may have been a great footballer, not necessarily a great professional footballer. He didn't adapt his game to the changing times, becoming more physical or improving his workrate off the ball. But, mostly, he just marched to the beat of the symphony in his head.
Carlovich didn't just miss or turn up late to training sessions; he sometimes was late for games too, with the team bus at Central Cordoba, where he played most of his career, having to detour by his house to pick him up. Of course, when he was 19 and breaking into the first team at Rosario Central, problems arose when he mistakenly turned up early. Before an away trip to Buenos Aires, he famously got on the team bus an hour or so before it was due to leave. He sat in the back, by himself, in the empty bus until he grew bored with waiting -- a whole 10 minutes or so -- and then simply hopped off and walked away, never to return to the club. That afternoon, playing under an assumed name, he turned out for a local team in an amateur tournament.
His place in Rosario lore was cemented ahead of the 1974 World Cup, when a team made up of local players took on the Germany-bound Argentine national team. By half-time, the local XI were up 3-0 and "El Trinche" had single-handedly ripped the opposition to shreds to the point that, legend has it, Argentine FA officials asked that he be substituted, lest he further humiliate the team and cause lasting psychological damage to the nation.
Carlovich might have been part of the Argentina side that won the 1978 World Cup, but when Menotti called him up for a series of friendlies before the tournament, he simply didn't show up. Why? Carlovich would say in later interviews that he "didn't remember." Menotti said he came up with some excuse of how he'd gone fishing, the river flooded and he couldn't get back.
Part of "El Trinche" lore, whispered in hushed tones by certain people around Rosario, is that he nearly signed for Inter, for Paris Saint-Germain and for the New York Cosmos (the latter tale has Pele vetoing his acquisition for fear of being shown up). As with much of his career, it's hard to separate fact from fiction, but equally, for a guy whose stints away from Rosario were few and fleeting, it's even harder to imagine him moving to another continent.
For a long time, it was easy to write Carlovich off as a bohemian local hero, a hippie free spirit who never grew up. He often said he "had no regrets" because he loved football and got to play it for a living until his body gave up and he started working construction. He didn't need the crowds or the money or the silverware; he just loved the game. But a few years after his retirement, at a charity evening to raise money for surgical treatment after he developed osteoporosis, he was asked if he still felt that way, if there was anything he would change about his career.
"No, sir, please don't ask me that," he said, eyes starting water, voice wavering. "Not that, please."
Did "El Trinche" wonder, like the rest of us, what might have been if he had applied himself? If he had the work ethic and the intensity to make the most of the gifts his maker had bestowed upon him? Was the story a little less romantic than the celebration of non-conformism we had been told? Did he take the wrong fork in the road?
The mystery remains and we'll never know the answer. But on the streets of Rosario, where old-timers still swear by his pure, unadulterated talent, they're just glad to have had him in their midst for so long. And they mourn the senseless way they lost him.