José Luis Chilavert – Paraguay’s prolific posterboy between the sticks

A story that the modern game is simply unable to digest. A career, for those unaware, which could never have happened. One man who defied football’s norms.

The 2002 World Cup qualifiers near their end in South America. Paraguay’s footballing home in Asunción is crammed to the rafters with joyous locals as they welcome Colombia in the final game. In a one-sided affair, Colombia eases past their hosts with Graham Poll officiating a 4-0 thrashing. Having already secured World Cup qualification in their penultimate game a week earlier, Paraguay can be forgiven for taking their foot off the gas.

The usual suspects line the South American goalscoring charts. Hernán Crespo and Columbia’s Augustín Delgado lead the pack with nine each. The Brazilian double act of Rivaldo and Romário, samba to the finish line with one fewer. The Argentinian trio of Gabriel Batistuta, Juan Sebastián Verón and Claudio López, share the spoils as they each register five goals after 18 qualifying games.

Paraguay goalkeeper, José Luis Chilavert, reaches a total of four goals for his country. A tally that seems outlandish in the modern game. Chilavert’s goalscoring exploits prove quite a feat for a player who should be confined to his eighteen-yard area. He would finish his career as the second-highest goalscoring goalkeeper of all time, behind fellow South American, Rogério Ceni.

This isn’t a story of a goalkeeper who took charge of dead-ball duties when the pressure was off. Putting a nail in an opposition’s coffin who had already conceded a hatful was of no interest to Chilavert. Instead, the big game player was often deployed as the trump card.

Rewind to match-day nine and halfway through FIFA World Cup qualification. Paraguay faces intense pressure and desperately protects a 0-1 lead in a hotly contested battle in Colombia. Paraguay win a free-kick in the 89th minute, centrally and roughly twenty-five yards out from goal. How were they going to play this? Keep possession and shave a couple of minutes off of the clock? Think again.

Chilavert saunters upfield, brimming with self-belief and donning a bulky white glove on either hand. He approaches the ball to the noise of tens of thousands in yellow, now screaming with slight trepidation. Chilavert, seemingly without any thought of what could happen if his counterpart clutches the ball to his chest, crosses the halfway line.

This was a regular occurrence for any Vélez Sarsfield fan watching events unfold. During a ten-year love affair with the Argentinian club, their number one produced over thirty goals. Vélez Sarsfield fans could plot his next steps without looking. This had become habitual.

Chilavert stands over the ball, chest pumped out with the utmost confidence. The referee’s whistle resonates around the ground before he sets his gaze on the ball and starts his run-up. The Paraguayan caresses the ball beyond the right of Colombia’s goalkeeper who was given absolutely no chance.

Paraguay were two goals up, victorious, and accompanied by three much-needed points on the journey home.

Attacking prowess in Argentina

Chilavert’s time with Vélez Sarsfield saw him at his most prolific in front of goal. Alongside his goalscoring habits in Argentina’s top division, Chilavert guided Vélez Sarsfield to the most successful period in the club’s history. In the space of five years, the goalkeeper had won four domestic triumphs and five titles on the continent.

Individual honours would back up his side’s treble-winning season in 1996 as Chilavert became the first Paraguayan to win the Argentine player of the year award. Furthermore, his performances that season saw him crowned South American player of the year. The first goalkeeper to receive the honour since its inception. With the newsworthy abnormalities attached to his game, it’s easy to forget just how good Chilavert was between the sticks.

To earn such a prestigious award in South America and be mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Zico, and Maradona shows that his illuminating qualities stretched further than his ability to deliver from dead-ball situations. A committed and hardworking professional who dedicated countless hours of extra training to aid his team offensively. The Paraguayan was an outspoken, agile shot-stopper with a commanding presence on and off the field.

Three years later and just over twenty years ago, José Luis Chilavert writes himself into the history books, again. The goalkeeper dispatches a hat-trick of convincing penalties in the triumph and deservedly claims headlines worldwide. Ferro Carril Oeste slumps to a 6-1 loss as Chilavert chalks up another three goals in Argentina.

“Goalkeepers need an element of insanity” – Oliver Kahn

‘You’ve got to be mad to be a goalkeeper.’ A claim which most struggles to shake and the majority often live up to. In this case, the eccentric safety-net ticked all preconceived boxes and wasn’t without his controversies.

Highlighting his short fuse, a four-match ban followed an altercation with Diego Maradona in a 1997 FIFA World Cup qualifier. In the same year, Chilavert came to blows with Colombia and Newcastle cult-hero, Faustino Asprilla. A squabble which saw both men leave the field and Colombia score an 81st-minute equaliser from the resulting penalty. Paraguay restored their lead shortly after and won the game, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of many Colombians.

As Asprilla sat in his hotel room following the final whistle, he received an unexpected phone call. The mystery caller at the other end of the phone? A Colombian hitman dead-set on murdering Chilavert. He was furious.

The Newcastle striker put forward a convincing argument for the man not to kill Chilavert, who he shared a heated incident with only hours earlier. Asprilla proclaimed that the man would ruin Colombian football forever if he were to carry out the senseless act. “What happens on the pitch, stays on the pitch,” explained Asprilla. The phone call signified a very real threat considering Colombian defender, Andres Escobar, who was murdered after his World Cup own-goal led to an early exit for Los Cafeteros.

Not one to shy away from controversy, the outspoken goalkeeper had a spat with Brazil’s Roberto Carlos in a 2002 World Cup qualifying match. Paraguay’s 2-0 loss in Brazil ended in a large scale brawl following Chilavert’s quite literal spat with the full-back. Commenting after the game on why he resorted to spitting in Carlos’ face, the goalkeeper told Cadena COPE: “At the first corner kick, after he called for a foul, this dwarf shouted to me: “Get up, Indian.” After that, when they scored he touched his genitals to provoke me.”

Chilavert continued: ‘When the match was going to end he pointed to the scoreboard, as we greeted each other he told me: ‘Indian, we have won 2-0, you are a disaster’ and he hit me. That’s when I defended myself and I spat at him.”

As football evolves, stories like Chilavert’s slowly fade out of the sport and look likely to never happen again. Left restricted to the pages of football’s history books. Can you imagine Jordan Pickford thirty yards out, fighting off competition to take a free-kick? Just the thought of it makes me shudder.

The Ex-Strasbourg and Real Zaragoza ‘keeper would finish his international career on eight goals, running out for his country on 74 occasions.

Domestically, the set-piece specialist returned 46 goals in 614 appearances by the time he decided to call a halt on his playing career.

A playing career now etched into history amongst South American footballing giants.

The Author

Sam Ingram

Freelance football writer - @SamIngram_

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