The Spanish term “vendehumo”, literally a smoke seller, best translates into English as someone who talks a lot of hot air, talking a good game but is not always able to deliver his lofty promises. Perhaps the best proponent of this in Argentinian football is Ricardo Caruso Lombardi, who recently lost his job at San Lorenzo last month as the club once again face a battle to beat relegation.
One of the most controversial, farcical and thus thoroughly watchable characters in the league, Caruso Lombardi seems just that; a character, a porteño parody of David Brent. From his largely unbuttoned shirt, gold chain and goatee combination to his Redknappian propensity to dish out a tasty sound bite for the media, he often dominates headlines and not always for the right reasons. The crowning moment came in May last season when film crews caught him fighting on the street with Fabián García, the assistant of San Lorenzo’s former boss Leonardo Madelón.
Nevertheless, Caruso Lombardi has forged a reputation as a something of a “bombero del descenso” (relegation firefighter), brought in to rally the troops and save them from the drop against the odds. After winning the Primera B Metropolitana (the Argentinian third division) with Sportivo Italiano in 1996 and then with Tigre in 2005, he got his shot at the big time with Argentinos Juniors at the beginning of 2007. He ensured they finished outside of the promedios - the relegation system based on a three year point average - only to leave five games into the Apertura later that year.
It was at his next job that his stock really began to rise. Taking over a Newell’s side that in 2007 was in danger of direct relegation, Caruso Lombardi managed to avoid not only automatic relegation but even the Promoción play-off too, ending the season 14th in the promedios. In February 2009 he moved again, this time to Buenos Aires giant Racing Club who were facing a similarly perilous position. La Academia won 30 points from 16 games, finishing 5th in the table and dodged being dragged into a relegation scrap.
Despite failing to live up to his firefighter tag at Quilmes when los Cerveceros were relegated in 2011, Caruso Lombardi was called into action once more when San Lorenzo came knocking midway through the Clausura earlier this year. Quilmes were well placed in the B Nacional, chasing promotion with two thirds of the season gone, while San Lorenzo were in disarray, sitting just above the direct relegation places with a resurgent Tigre breathing down their necks and in serious danger of suffering the same fate that befell River the year before. Furthermore, spates of violence ranging from barra brava members threatening captain Jonathan Bottinelli at training during the Apertura to a youth player being stabbed in February made taking over los Cuervos a far from enticing proposition. But the temptation of a challenge was too strong for Caurso Lombardi to resist.
However, thanks to the dreadful form of Banfield (who surrendered a 21 point advantage over Tigre), some inspired performances from Julio Buffarini and the sorcery of a certain ginger ball boy, el Ciclón were able to give themselves a chance of salvation via the Promoción play-off. They still had to overcome an impressive Instituto side but a 2-0 triumph in Córdoba and a 1-1 draw in the Nuevo Gasómetro was enough to save them by the skin of their teeth.
Despite having survived the chop, Caruso Lombardi’s men were not out of the woods coming into the new season and duly set about arming a formidable looking squad. Denis ‘Stracq Attack’ Stracqualursi of brief Everton fame and Franco Jara from Benfica significantly bolstered their front line while Martín Rolle from Olimpo, Ignacio Piatti on loan from Lecce, Luis Aguiar from Peñarol and Juan Mercier from Al Wasl were also brought in to provide the ammunition. Leandro Romagnoli unfortunate injury aside, San Lorenzo boasted a strong side on paper that looked more than capable of steering themselves clear of trouble.
Behind the scenes, though, the instability has remained. The victory of Matías Lammens and media mogul Marcelo Tinelli (a Simon Cowell like figure who hosts, among other things, Showmatch - Argentina’s ranchier version of Strictly Come Dancing) in the club’s presidential elections in September saw a desire for a new direction. Coupled with just two wins from ten games, early optimism quickly faded away and even celebrity fan Viggo Mortensen waded in to criticise Caruso Lombardi.
Things finally came to a head last month when Caruso Lombardi grudgingly left his post and was swiftly replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi. It was originally considered that the game against Godoy Cruz would be the last chance to save his job but the board had other ideas and it proved that this was one inferno too many even for the famed firefighter. The San Lorenzo show will go on without him and there will certainly be plenty more drama to come in Bajo Flores as Pizzi’s men battle to escape a Dantescan descent into the second tier.
Though Caruso Lombardi has proven effective in saving clubs against the odds, he has largely struggled when trying to take them forward and his extravagant outspokenness has riled players, chairmen and fans alike. Nevertheless, the crippling short-termism rife in the Argentinian game means that this paradoxical figure of the smokeseller and firefighter is likely to return in some guise. After all, there’s no smoke without fire.