The smoke-selling firefighter performing miracles in Argentina
“The difference between me and Forrest Gump is that I’m a much quicker speaker,” says Arsenal de Sarandi manager Ricardo Caruso Lombardi. The 53-year-old has all the credentials to become one of the most sought-after coaches in Argentina – but at the same time is one of the most curious characters in football.
In the early '80s, complete with moustache and tight shorts, the 5ft 5in midfielder played alongside a young Diego Maradona for Argentinos Juniors.
The careers of the two quickly diverged: one became the world’s best player, the other quit football at 28 and made a living by selling buckets, tupperware and water jugs.
Caruso Lombardi also kept himself busy running a nightclub which was supposed to be a love nest for divorced fiftysomethings. “I’ve managed to form more couples than I won trophies in football, that’s for sure,” he chuckles. He's often chuckling, but that doesn't mean he can't make serious points.
“Not that many people in football’s top flight could accept the fact that I was becoming one of them, after coming from the deep worlds of lower tiers.”
Through the leagues
He is the only manager that has worked in every division, from fifth to first, and naturally feels his name was frowned upon when first appointed by Argentinos Juniors thanks to the president listening to the advice of a certain D. Maradona. But in a few months his team had become the revelation of the tournament, with most of the previously unknown players brought directly via Caruso Lombardi's knowledge.
“The thing is that I know every player from the country, or at least I try to," he explains. "I have friends everywhere, I live for football, and I’m always up for trying to discover some talent. I don’t see a difference: if they can be useful, I don’t care if they are working with cows and playing in a local league on Sundays.”
He's often chuckling, but that doesn't mean he can't make serious points
These aren't empty words. He has implemented trials on a massive scale, even for big clubs such as Racing Club. As he points out: “Free agents can be added in any moment, so there's always a chance of increasing the squad depth if you need to.”
A man for all seasons
For all the thoughtful contemplation, he can be a very different animal on matchday. His record of red cards is appalling: “It’s the Italian blood running in my veins,” he claims. While he managed Tigre, he was hospitalised after cursing the referee and having a nervous breakdown. Another time, after a controversial penalty, he had to be rushed to the emergency room with a suspected heart attack. He has also accused a rival manager of taking cocaine, thrown punches at his critics on live TV and thoroughly enjoys engaging in face-to-face arguments with supporters, sometimes from his own team. One game had to be suspended because he refused to leave the pitch after being dismissed by the referee. And he had to spend his 30th birthday in jail, as one argument with a police officer ended in a punch.
Why Forrest Gump? Well, he has managed to meet two Argentine presidents, has run a small-scale circus, been a TV actor and posed for a photoshoot as firefighter. His dream is to appear in a film.
“I’ve always had this easiness to speak and attract the interest of the people," he recalls. "That’s why I used to walk in every big store on the street and start talking to the owners, trying to convince them to buy some buckets and plastic bags I was selling."
He has also accused a rival manager of taking cocaine and thrown punches at his critics on live TV
And the circus? "The circus was an idea for the people in my neighbourhood, and even though we didn’t have any lions, I must say that the dog made really extraordinary displays”.
The grandson of an Italian soldier, Caruso Lombardi is a man of many faces – and it runs in the family: “My grandparents met in a carnival parade, all disguised and wearing masks. This is why I carry an artistic soul.”
The firefighting smoke-seller
Clearly he's a character, but clubs don't hire clowns as coaches, and Caruso Lombardi gets results. Since establishing himself in the First Division he has become a sort of talisman for clubs that are broken.
His “motivational pump” has saved Racing, Argentinos and Tigre, among others, from going down. Sometimes, as with Quilmes, he was appointed too late – but only just, as a club that had expected to be relegated with five rounds to spare were suddenly only one goal away from staying up.
Caruso Lombardi’s charlatan fame is also something he lives with and laughs about. He is the king of the vendehumo managerial school: literally "smoke-sellers" who rely on their oral skills to get results.
“The thing about smoke is that I see managers who have failed at every club they’ve worked for, and still they are getting job offers. So I’d say that smoke is what they sell, not me. Don’t come to me with the high-profile thing, because I might talk too much, but results are visible.”
Don’t come to me with the high-profile thing, because I might talk too much, but results are visible
Even so, he mocked the characterisation by posing with a smoke machine, which he used as a machine gun, for an El Gráfico cover-shoot. Typically, he loved it: “My dream was to be on the cover, and I managed to do it twice, once with Racing and once with Argentinos, so I can’t complain”.
This season Caruso Lombardi started his own TV radio show with Hector Veira, another funny character from the benches.
He had to be released from those duties when Arsenal came calling. Bad results, fan trouble, a dark future on the horizon: a fitting mission for Caruso Lombardi, the firefighter always ready for a new adventure.