Thursday, 23 January 2014

Chilavert, The Goalscoring Goalie

November 1999. Early summer in the thriving barrio of Liniers, Buenos Aires. At the edge of town, the latest Clásico del Oeste holds the attention of thousands, with Velez Sarsfield and Ferro Carril Oeste fighting for bragging rights and honour.

Chilavert. A footballing hero.
In such games, goals are precious no matter of origin. But when ones goalkeeper strides confidently from the back to crash home a hat-trick of penalty-kicks, all new levels of celebration are created. In the stands, a typical surge of energy and excitement greets another footnote in world football history. By this point, the Velez fans had cheered dozens of goals from the left foot of their peculiar Paraguayan, but the novelty endured. No goalkeeper in history had ever scored a hat-trick. Until now. José Luis Chilavert was nothing if not unique.

The history of football is littered with eccentric goalkeepers. In fact, nihilism may be a pre-requisite when playing such a position. But Chilavert elevated disregard for footballing rules to an art form. He shrugged off teammates in order to take penalty kicks; raced forward like a headless chicken to curl home free-kicks; and became an icon for my football-watching generation. We just couldn't believe this guy. Sure, many other goalkeepers have scored goals, from Hans-Jörg Butt and Dimitar Ivankov to Peter Schmeichel and Jorge Campos, but very few have done it with such precision and skill as Chilavert. Only Rogério Ceni, the legendary São Paulo goalkeeper, has scored more goals than the Paraguayan from that position in history. His is a safe place in football lore.

In a twenty-two year career, Chilavert played for seven clubs in five countries, scoring 46 domestic goals. He also scored 8 times for Paraguay, for whom he played on 74 occasions. Any newcomer to football furnished only with such raw statistical records would conclude that Chilavert was a veteran striker. Perhaps he was a target man, or a second striker who worked tirelessly to create opportunities for teammates. Wrong! In actuality, Chilavert was a very adept goalkeeper. He frequently received World Goalkeeper of the Year Awards ahead of immortals such as Schmeichel and Fabien Barthez. The bravery and acrobatic saves of a fine goalkeeper were only outshone by the rather wacky goalscoring exploits.

Chilavert was born on 27th July, 1965 in the southern city of Luque, Paraguay. A fairly nondescript metropolitan area, Luque was famous only for its airport and musical instrument manufacturing during Chilavert's childhood. However, a strong sense of civic pride always accompanied Sportivo Luqueño, the local football team, whose famous yellow and blue colours help decorate the city. Soon, the club, one of passion yet little tangible success, was alerted to Chilavert, who graduated through the youth ranks after impressing.

Whilst at Sportivo, Chilavert was mentored by legendary goalkeeping coach Modesto Sandoval, yet occasionally experimented with attacking set-plays, scoring four times in his two seasons before moving on to Guarani, a more successful Paraguayan club. Chilavert managed to contain his inner playmaker sufficiently to help steer the Capital club to a Primera División title in 1985. He did, though, manage to sneak one goal in for good measure.

The esteemed culture of San Lorenzo in Argentina further restricted Chilavert's goalscoring desires; his four-year stay in Boedo more a demonstration of shot-stopping excellence than goalscoring insanity. In time, European clubs were alerted to Chilavert, with scouting reports no doubt waxing lyrical about his strong mental approach and sharp reflexes between the sticks.

Thus, imagine the shock of Real Zaragoza officials when Chilavert decided to trot forward to take a penalty against Real Sociedad shortly after signing for Los Blanquillos in 1988. Let Chilavert explain the absolute chaos which ensued in this archived FIFA interview: I went up to take a penalty and told an outfield player to go in goal until I got back. I scored and started to celebrate in the middle of the pitch. When I looked round, the other team had already kicked-off, but I wasn't too worried because I'd left my teammate covering the goal. The trouble was that he'd come up to celebrate the goal as well. Sociedad scored, and I could have died. Luckily we were leading 2-0, and we held on to win 2-1. That was crazy.”

A succinct glimpse into the mind of an extreme entertainer, right there.

In time, Chilavert returned to Argentina with Velez Sarsfield, where venturing forward to curl home goals became something of a party trick. During a decade between the sticks at Estadio José Amalfitani, Chilavert became a hero. He embodied the passion and spirit of a Velez team which won four Primera Division titles in a condensed period, whilst also excelling on the continental stage with success in the hallowed Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup in 1994. It's important to understand that Chilavert was not just a slightly-crazy goalkeeper who could take an occasional free-kick. Rather, he was a deadly artisan over the ball; his shots carrying more verve and technical quality than those of even the greatest outfield technicians. He was a dead-ball genius who just happened to play in goal.

In acknowledging Chilavert's outward perception, one sees a lovable figure perhaps lacking in the intensity of a winner. In reality, this cannot be further from the truth. Chilavert has a collection of rare and prestigious winners medals from some of world football's most sequestered tournaments. Yes, he barged teammates out of the way to command dead-ball situations, piquing the chagrin of opponents in the process, but the fiery Paraguayan was immensely competitive. It would be wrong for history to forget his record as a proven winner.

International football gave the entire world an opportunity to witness the sublime Chilavert. He took his show of death-defying stunts on the road with Paraguay. A fearsome captain, the goalscoring goalie starred at two World Cups, even scoring in the France '98 qualification campaign. In the build-up to World Cup 2002, England played Paraguay at Anfield in a friendly game. As a football-obsessed eight-year old, I was thrilled when my Dad surprised me with tickets to the game. It was a chance to see some true footballing superstars, even if my idol David Beckham was absent with a metatarsal injury. Further, it was an opportunity to see Chilavert. However, the inspirational stopper was serving the second of a three-match ban for spitting at Roberto Carlos during an altercation in a qualification game. Chilavert maintained that Carlos racially insulted him, thus provoking the gesture. Nonetheless, I was devastated that my one real chance of seeing this iconic hero was snatched away. Thus, I'm left with the same video clips and match reports as you. A small sample is included below. They map the career of Chilavert pretty neatly, with several of his more incredible goals, including strikes against Diego Maradona's Boca Juniors and one from inside his own half of the field against River Plate.

Chilavert briefly returned to Europe with Strasbourg in 2000, before a spell at Uruguayan giants Peñarol and a symbolic retirement with Velez in 2004. He even managed to score a goal in his testimonial game. In 2005, he received a suspended prison sentence in France for the use of false documentation relating to compensation due from the cancelling of his Strasbourg contract. Somewhat typically for such an outspoken figure, the Paraguayan went on to work as a football commentator and analyst, a role which he keeps to this day. 

In the history of football, we've seen bizarre goalkeepers and free-kick experts; penalty-taking savants and inspirational captains; outspoken icons and contrarian characters. However, only a hero so monumental as José Luis Chilavert could be all of those things wrapped-up in one mass of raw Paraguayan passion. He was the epitome of unique. We'll never see his like again. 

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