Illustration by Federico Manasse
“Get out of the way, I’m going to whack it!” With the pent-up intensity of a solid six foot two inch frame sporting a snarling bulldog behind those words, few would have attempted to stand in his way; but José Luís Chilavert’s delivery was not remotely as uncultured as his emphatic shout would lead you to believe.
When David Beckham launched possibly his most famous shot in the south London sunshine 20 years ago, it was lauded as a testament to the boundless potential and class of a future star. A year earlier, however, Chilavert had already outdone him. Looking back at the 60-yard free-kick he sent swerving and dipping past River Plate keeper Germán Burgos, even the man himself admitted that if he “took another 1,000 kicks like that, [he’d] never score another one like it.”
His relentless practice on the training ground – where he would stay behind to hit around 100 free-kicks after each regular session had finished – laid the groundwork for a career tally of over 60 club goals and eight for his country, but his impact was much more than a novelty. His combustible on-field persona ensured he could never be forgotten, and at times it spilled over into controversy, but it added a toughness to Paraguay’s golden era in the 1990s.
Following their 1958 World Cup finals campaign where they narrowly crashed out in the group stage, the Albiroja managed just one more appearance at the global stage in 40 years. Although they won the 1979 Copa América, it was the leanest of spells that could only be broken by a special generation that included Carlos Gamarra and Francisco Arce. There was only one leader, though: Chilavert.
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The curious isolation of the goalkeeper’s position has meant that there have been few captains in the number one shirt, so those that have combined the two roles have been legendary figures in the game. Dino Zoff, Peter Schmeichel, Oliver Kahn, Lev Yashin – all are revered with almost mythical awe. The regard with which Chilavert is held is down to much more than his international exploits, though; despite being voted the best goalkeeper in the world three times and twice captaining his country to World Cups, he never played for one of Europe’s top clubs.
Instead he played just three top-flight seasons in Europe for Real Zaragoza and later Strasbourg, whom he stayed with despite relegation to Ligue 2, earning promotion back to France’s top-flight having won the Coupe de France the year before. After leaving his home country at the age of 20, he spent the majority of his career in Argentina, predominantly with Vélez Sarsfield, with whom he won the Primera División and Copa Libertadores, and garnered admiration for his fiery attitude.
Altercations with Faustino Asprilla, Diego Maradona and Roberto Carlos, to name just three, have polarised opinions regarding him, but the overriding emotion is respect. He claimed to have lived barefoot until the age of seven, and suffered the ire of fans as he brought his bizarre approach to goalkeeping, but he stuck to his convictions and fought his way to the top. He refused to play for his country when the 1999 Copa América was staged on home soil in protest at the level of investment being made in football over education, and has accused CONMEBOL directors of corruption without hesitation.
Anyone else would have struggled to get away with such a forthright character, but not Paraguay’s most revered and well-known footballer, the one and only José Luís Chilavert