Brian Homewood salutes an unconventional goalkeeper

Like Timbuktu and Outer Mongolia, Paraguay is best-known for being an out-of-the-way place. If it has any claim to fame, it is for harbouring Nazi war criminals. It is mocked by neighbouring Brazil, which sees it as a smugglers’ haven (in reality Brazil is one of South America’s crime capitals), and sneered at by Argentina, which looks on it as a source of cheap labour. An estimated one million Paraguayans live in Argentina, many of them employed cleaning up after rich natives.

Fortunately there is football, which gives Paraguay at least one area in which they can compete on equal terms with much larger nations. The likes of Argentina, Brazil and Colombia tremble at the thought of a match in Asuncion and the Paraguayans could probably more than hold their own with most European teams if their paths were ever to cross. The country can also boast one of the world’s most charismatic, entertaining and extrovert players, goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert.

A menacing figure who takes to the field with a snarling bulldog emblazoned on his jersey, Chilavert once described a rival goalkeeper in Argentina, where he plays for Velez Sarsfield, as a “Fiat 600” and himself, in modest comparison, as a “Mercedes-Benz”. Last year, he refused to hold a joint press-conference with the Boca Juniors keeper, Carlos Navarro Montoya, because, he said, Montoya was a “nobody”. After helping Velez beat Sao Paulo on penalties to win the Libertadores Cup in 1994, he treated millions of Brazilian television viewers to a stream of obscenities when a rather foolhardy Globo television reporter tried to do the old “How does it feel?” bit at the end of the game.

He does, it has to be said, have good reason to brag. Since joining Velez in 1993, his club have won the Argentinian championships three times (there are two competitions per season), the Libertadores Cup – South America’s European Cup – and the World Club Championship when, amazingly, they beat AC Milan 2-0. Pre-Chilavert, they had won just one league title, back in 1968.

Chilavert’s claim that he is the best goalkeeper in the world may or may not be true but his ability to score goals from free kicks and penalties certainly makes him unique. Last year he scored eight for his club, plus one for his country, in a World Cup qualifier against Argentina in Buenos Aires. And even if he does not score, his huge kicks upfield (he seems to be able to pinpoint one of his own forwards at the other end of the pitch) are one of Velez’s most useful attacking options.

His other goals included an amazing effort when he scored with a free kick from 60 yards against River Plate in the Argentine championship after seeing goalkeeper German Burgos off his line. He said afterwards that Burgos should “learn to concentrate more”. When the two came face to face again in the World Cup match in Buenos Aires in September. Chilavert warned beforehand that he would score and dismissed Burgos as “mediocre”. Argentina took an early lead, but Paraguay won a free kick near the Argentinian area just before halftime and when Chilavert lined up the ball, photographers behind the Argentina goal claimed that Burgos trembled. He got both hands to Chilavert’s shot but allowed it to slip away and slither across the line and has not played for Argentina since.

The goal, however, brought tensions between Chilavert and his Argentinian hosts. Two days later, a court in the nearby town of La Plata suddenly announced a three month suspended prison sentence and a 13-month ban on playing football for Chilavert for his part in a brawl during a match in the town two years ago. The Argentinian FA, under pressure from FIFA which hates outside interference in football matters, quickly refused to recognize the ban, but the whole incident tweaked Chilavert’s anti-Argentine streak.

Chilavert, who had last year claimed that the Argentine media could not stomach the idea of a Paraguayan goalkeeper being the best in their country, said: “They cannot forgive my success because I’m Paraguayan but I feel better than ever. These are the same people who think that Paraguayans belong on building sites or cleaning the houses of the rich.” He snidely compared his situation to that of Diego Maradona, who has still not been sentenced for firing at journalists with an air gun in early 1994. “Murderers, rapists, a person who fired a gun with telescopic sights at journalists – to this day they haven’t sentenced him. And they sentenced me so quickly,” he said.

The Paraguayan ambassador, possibly wary of how such incidences in Latin America football have resulted in stoning of embassies and worse in the past, tried to defuse the situation. “Hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans live here and they get on marvellously with the Argentines,” he said.

Back home, Chilavert is one of the most famous of his countrymen ever to have lived and is treated accordingly. Chilavert T-Shirts, bearing the bulldog, are sold everywhere. The Paraguayan Football League (LFP) recently invited Asuncion bulldog owners to enter their pets in a competition to find the animal that most resembled the one on his shirt. The winning dog would then have the honour of becoming the official team mascot.

Chilavert’s leadership – his very presence on the pitch appears to intimate the opposition – has turned Paraguay, never easy to beat at the best of times, into one of the most dangerous teams on the continent. They are currently second in the South American World Cup qualifying group, with an away win against Uruguay to add to the precious point they picked up in Argentina. They have the advantage of playing their home games in one of the continent’s most intimidating arena, the ‘Defenders of the Chaco’ stadium. Opposing teams can expect a hot reception in a cramped 40,000-capacity ground and when one team was pelted with oranges recently, one observer remarked that it could be considered a friendly gesture by Asuncion standards. Late arrivals can expect a wet one due to the local habit of drinking large quantities of herb tea before the game and then releasing it over the edge of the main stand.

But it has not always been sweetness and light between Chilavert and his own people. Chilavert refused to play for his country in the last Copa America, complaining bitterly about the incompetence of the local directors and despite being officially honoured by the latest government. He routinely dismisses his country’s politicians as corrupt, incompetent and responsible for keeping many Paraguayans in poverty. His solution, not surprisingly, is himself. Chilavert claims that when his playing days are over, he will stand for president and enforce his own brand of law and order.

From WSC 121 March 1997. What was happening this month

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