The 54-year-old Robert Carmona on being the world’s oldest footballer
Robert Carmona is already waiting in the lobby of the Colón Hotel in Buenos Aires as I arrive, running a few minutes late in the chaos of Monday morning in Argentina’s capital. The Uruguayan, however, looks serene, dressed impeccably in a pressed white polo shirt and a sports jacket and armed with mementos from his long career. He amiably brushes off any suggestion that the delay may have inconvenienced him. All told he is an oasis of calm in the Colón, a hub for business travellers and visitors from the country’s interior obliged to spend a handful of days in the centre of the sprawling city.
His willingness to wait is perhaps to be expected. Robert Carmona, officially the holder of the world record for the longest career of any professional footballer, is a living testament to the value of unerring patience as the years wear on.
The Montevideo native was born on 30 April 1962 and has dedicated his existence to the round ball. His face shows the strain of countless battles on the field, marked with lines and wrinkles typical of most 50-somethings, but he maintains the wiry frame needed to keep putting in the hard yards on the pitch. He speaks with the pleasant lilt possessed by all inhabitants of the tiny nation full of football overachievers on the eastern banks of the Río de la Plata, reminiscent of an Argentinian accent but with the rough edges sanded down, the jerky, rapid-fire manner of speech converted into a more sedate amble through the conversation. It is a curious contrast: Porteños, residents of Buenos Aires, speak and act as if in a continual collective frenzy. Denizens of the Uruguayan capital, meanwhile, just a short jump across the estuary, have an unsettling habit of never appearing rushed or flustered. Carmona is no exception. An endearing trait of Uruguay’s best footballers, or in this case those of a more humble level, is their willingness to keep going far beyond the age at which it is traditional to hang up your boots. And just like his esteemed footballing compatriots, a Rubén Paz here, an Enzo Francescoli there, a Diego Lugano or Diego Forlán more recently, he is in no rush to pull the curtain on an undistinguished but tenacious life in the game.
Carmona describes himself as an orthodox No. 10, a playmaker most comfortable with the ball at his feet conducting play. Understandably, as his legs have begun to slow down, he has had to become more economical with possession, learning to move the ball on before the uncompromising boot of a defender comes hurtling in. He also describes himself as a dead-ball expert, with plenty of penalty and free-kick goals over the years. “They haven’t reached the press because the teams I played in are minor sides. But I am happy because perhaps if I hadn’t played in lower league I would not have reached the world record,” he admits. I compare him to Paz, the former Charrúa wizard who is a legend at Peñarol, Racing Club de Avellaneda and in France, which brings up a laugh. “Yes, he played until 44 years old, a great player. Allowing for the distance between us, a similar player, always in control of the ball.”
But while Paz called it a day a mere sprig in his mid-40s, his contemporary continues plugging away. Carmona has already been awarded the Guinness World Record as the oldest professional player, overcoming the great Sir Stanley Matthews and the Scot Neil McBain, who began his career during the First World War and ended it with an emergency goalkeeping appearance at New Brighton in 1947. The Ayr native went on to coach for two years in Argentina, making the jump from Leyton Orient to Estudiantes de La Plata at the end of the 1940s. “For the first time a Guinness representative came to Uruguay and I am also the first player in the history of professional Uruguayan football to hold a record,” Carmona beams over his coffee.
Pan de Azúcar’s veteran No. 10 explains that merely gaining recognition for such a feat was no easy task. “It was not easy at all, it was all very long-winded, very difficult in every way,” Carmona explains.
“You have the training, besides the fact it is my job, the people, the press, it is all very interesting stuff. A Guinness record is extremely difficult because it is a very serious enterprise, you have to prove everything, and show you are in fact a professional footballer, you are fighting for a world record.”
The definition ‘professional’ is something that comes up more than once during the conversation, as the footballer describes his long and winding journey through the lower divisions of Uruguay’s pyramid. The story began in Montevideo back in 1969, when a six-year-old Carmona entered the junior team Charrúa. Just three years later he would suffer an experience that left a profound mark on his life – the passing of his father.
“It was then that football became really engrained in my life. When my father was on his deathbed he said to me, ‘Son, just play football.’ I think I fulfilled his dream, I’m still going and I have a world record,” he says. That early trauma pushed him forward, with the single-mindedness and dedication to playing that he still carries as a mark of honour almost 50 years later. In the mid-1970s he found himself in Pan de Azúcar, a lower-division club in the city of the same name, nestled in the interior of Maldonado department, most famous for Punta del Este, the beach resort of the Latin American jetset.
From that starting point, Carmona’s career followed the typical path of thousands of footballers plying their trade in the sport’s basement leagues. There were plenty of club changes – “Las Piedras, Colón, Alto Perú,” he begins ticking off some of the names, all in the sprawling pyramid of the Uruguayan interior divisions. The football was hard, the hits hurt and the pay was just enough to scrape by. Until, in 1987, he received his big break. An offer arrived to play in the United States, at that time in the dark ages between the Pelé-led mania of the North American Soccer League (NASL) and the resurgence stimulated by the hosting of the World Cup in 1994. The Uruguayan hopped about in the east, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami, playing in semi-professional leagues organised variously by Italian, Portuguese and El Salvadorian immigrants. Carmona spent a total of 13 years living in the US, an experience he credits with revitalising his career both on and off the pitch.
“I earned great money in those days, I was chosen as the best player of the year in one league in 1994, with the New Jersey Imperials, I did very well economically to support my family and come and go as I pleased to Uruguay,” he explains.
“I grew a lot as a footballer, I learned to live with other cultures, I learned languages: now I speak English, Italian, Portuguese, I can’t write them but I speak them! They played a quick football, with lots of contact, and us Latinos took on people from all sorts of countries, lots of Europeans – but for us Uruguayan football always had that magic, that contact with the ball, the creativity on the field which defines quality.” It was also in the US that Carmona pulled on the famous Celeste shirt of his national team for the first and only time, representing Uruguay in a tournament of immigrants. The Charrúa exiles reached the final in New York and although Chile eventually prevailed in the decider, the veteran recalls the event as one of the proudest days of his life. “It was the best moment of my career,” he says without hesitating.
Carmona finally returned for good to his native Montevideo in 2000, after his daughter Agustina was born with health complications. Then 38 years old, he tried his hand at coaching and reached a level he had never achieved as a player when he led Deportivo Colonia to the Primera División before getting sacked for his troubles. Stints at Albion, the grand old club of Uruguayan football dating back to 1891, and Platense followed, as did a short spell as an agent, shuttling young hopefuls across the Río de la Plata from Uruguay to Argentina and vice versa, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to introduce Japanese talent into the local leagues.
It was in this wheeler-dealer phase that he had an unforgettable encounter with Diego Maradona, while working with Buenos Aires club Tristán Suárez. Both men were in contact with Gastón Granados, son of the hardline Ezeiza mayor Alejandro – who became a public figure after a shootout with thieves in his home in 1999 – and a member of the infamous Granados clan who for decades have held sway over the district. Carmona was there touting several young Uruguayan players, while Maradona was sponsoring a number of the youth team. In the long lunches held in the Granados’ country mansion, other personalities such as José Luis Chilavert, Beto Carranza and Kily González would join Carmona while Maradona held court, handing out advice and counsel.
The Uruguayan laughs as he recalls how his attempt to impress possibly the best player ever to have stepped onto a football field ended in disaster. “When we were together he would show us all his tricks, juggling an orange, shooting at the crossbar. Then one day there was a game and I wanted to play, but against him,” he says.
“My admiration for him was enormous, I was shaking in my boots. He did everything short of making the ball talk and I wanted to do something, but I was so nervous I did not know what to do. I get the ball, I go down the right flank, and I try a rabona, which always works for me. But instead of hitting the ball I got tangled up, slipped on the ball and fell over. Diego says to me, ‘Calm down, Uruguayan, not the rabona.’ After that he would call me ‘Rabona’ all the time.
“He is a legend, an idol, an example to all of us, a football wizard. I think that the world will never see another like him. Maradona marks a before and after in football history.”
But while Carmona dabbled in football-related activities, the pitch was never far away. In 2007, at the age of 45, he decided to make his comeback and dedicate himself to playing full-time. Two years later, his daughter was walking past the window of a Montevideo bookshop and saw Guinness World Records sitting in the display. “She asked me, ‘Dad, are you in that book?’ I thought, ‘Wow,’ and took a look,” he explains. At that point the Italian Marco Barlotta, 42, was named as the oldest player still in action. Robert had already turned 48 at that point. Determined to see his own name among the world’s tallest and shortest men, the biggest omelette and the longest beard, he requested his registration from the Uruguayan Football Association (AUF) and began the quest to gain recognition as the sport’s eldest of elder statesmen. More clubs followed: Albion for two years, this time as a player, then La Luz, Mar del Fondo, Colón, Platense, until finally the world record as football’s oldest current player fell into his lap.
But even then, he was not satisfied. In 2015 Carmona returned to his first club Pan de Azúcar, of the Interior Football Organisation supported by the AUF, in the hope of adding another entry into the book as the first footballer to play for the same club 40 years after making his debut. It is a stunning achievement, even more impressive taking in consideration the technically limited but bloodthirsty level of play that typifies the Divisional C in Uruguay and other leagues in the lower reaches of the pyramid. “Although the Divisional C cannot boast good players it does have extremely rough football. It is very tough, most of the players are between 18 and 24 years of age and there is a culture of great aggression and high physical effort. It gets very competitive, the hits, the clashes, but it is all part of the game,” Carmona insists.
Few are more qualified to comment on the problems football in Uruguay faces, particularly at the lower levels. Away from the big two, Nacional and Peñarol, and even more so once one ventures out of Montevideo, the sport is starved of support and funds, and its oldest active proponent sees a fairly bleak future. “Uruguayan football is impoverished, economically. It is divided into two or three different areas: if you can play in Montevideo for one of the two or three big teams it is one thing. The footballer who cannot play in Montevideo suffers greatly, sometimes he has no money for transport, to get to training or even to buy boots,” he says.
“The Uruguayan footballer is a warrior, long-suffering, but he has changed all the same. But he needs to be more professional. For the above reasons many do not play or stop playing, they do not have the comforts necessary to be professional. Football has changed for the worse, there is no interest from the Association because it is not profitable and it is not given the attention it should do. I personally have had a lot of doors shut in my face, but nobody can take my world record away from me, I won it, I am the only one who has one in Uruguay and I managed it through professionalism, commitment and good behaviour.”
Choosing the right time to retire is a challenge for any sportsman. Carmona is no exception. Even in his 50s, he refuses to imagine a life without football and insists he feels like a 20 year old. “There is Carmona for a while,” is his motto, one backed up by an intensive training schedule and frugal diet – “no fat, sugar, alcohol, soft drinks”. Carmona for a while: he repeats it as a mantra, a jingle which pushes him forward through the aches and pains inevitable in the life of a footballer, let alone one old enough to be a grandfather. When the day finally comes, he says, he will throw himself into his charity Score a Goal for Life, a foundation which aims to teach youngsters to turn away from alcohol and drugs and live through family and work. But, he repeats, that day will not be arriving for a good time yet. There is Carmona for a while.
This article appeared on Episode Seventy Four of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.