The Forgotten Legends of Football: Jose Luis Chilavert
Goalkeepers are often the subject of much criticism when it comes to their football skills; criticism which most fans of the game would agree is quite accurate. Compared to every other position on the pitch, playing in net is completely unique for obvious reasons. A deft touch or an accurate shot are attributes that are simply irrelevant if you’re playing between the sticks. Quick reflexes, safe hands and good body control are much more valued traits. Accordingly, almost all keepers tend to lack technical skill from the waist down, as well as the composure on the ball needed to ever amount to anything outside the 18 yard box.
However, that is not a universal rule. Every now and then, we see an exception. Every now and then, there emerges a goalkeeper so gifted with a football, so blessed with technique and grace, that it surprises us. A goalkeeper who is not just a goalkeeper, but a football player.
And by far the best of this very rare breed was Jose Luis Chilavert.
Now retired, Chilavert was a left-footed goalkeeper from Paraguay who played between 1989 and 2003. As a boy, Chilavert began his career in 1980 with Sportivo Luqueno in his home town of Luque. From there, he moved to fellow Paraguayan outfit Club Guarani, before making the first truly significant move of his career by transferring to San Lorenzo in the more competitive Argentinian league. In a four-year stint for San Lorenzo, Chilavert drew worldwide attention for the first time, and in 1988, Real Zaragoza of the Spanish La Liga brought the intriguing keeper to European football for the very first time.
After an encouraging three-year spell with the Spaniards, the Paraguayan native returned to his home continent and back to the Argentinian league, signing for Club Atletico Velez Sarsfield. It was here that Chilavert made his biggest impact, as over the next ten years (1991-2001) Chilavert helped the Argentinian club to four Primera División titles, as well as the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup, both in 1994.
In 2000, he moved back to Europe, playing for French Ligue 1 side RC Strasbourg. However, that stint was marred by disappointment, as under Chilavert’s guard the French club were relegated from the top division. In his last year of football in 2002-2003, Chilavert returned to South America one final time, playing for Club Atlético Peñarol in Uruguay. He retired in 2004 as a member of Velez Sarsfield, without playing another game for them.
Tragically, too few football fans around the world recognise the name of Jose Luis Chilavert. Perhaps that is because he played the majority of his career in South America, a much less popular football arena than Europe. For those that do know his name, they know it for one reason and one reason only; unusually for a goalkeeper, Jose Chilavert scored a lot of goals.
Bend it like
When I say that, I’m not talking about a keeper who simply has the nerve to take a penalty kick now and then. Plenty of keepers over the years have been gifted enough to score from the spot, including Manchester City‘s Joe Hart or retired German keeper Hans-Jörg Butt. Nor was it simply an ability to score late in a game from a corner kick, as Peter Schmeichel was able to do from time to time.
No, what Chilavert did goes well beyond that. He not only took penalties for his club and country, but also took most of their free kicks from short range. If the ball was placed within thirty yards of goal, and within the breadth of the penalty area, Chilavert was a pretty good bet to jog up and wrap his left foot around it. And what a left foot it was! In his 23-year career, Chilavert scored a staggering 54 goals. Rogerio Ceni of Brazil stands as the only goalkeeper in the history of the professional game with more. The way that the Paraguayan was able to manipulate the ball with bend, dip and pace all in one motion, whilst remaining deadly accurate, is a skill rarely seen in world football before or since. As far as I’m concerned, Chilavert’s left foot rivals David Beckham‘s famous right.
This is no exaggeration. The Paraguayan’s skills from the dead ball were so good that he is often regarded as one of the most gifted free-kick specialists to have ever played the game, not simply for a goalkeeper but any position. In one survey, he was listed 8th all-time in the list of best free-kick specialists of all time, ahead of Roberto Carlos and behind superstars Michel Platini and David Beckham. His free kicks were truly a thing of beauty, often leaving keepers completely stranded with breathtaking accuracy.
My personal favourite Chilavert free kick was as much a showcase of vision as it was talent. As the keeper came jogging forward to take a free kick, he noticed that his opposing number was a long way from his goal line and not paying attention. Chilavert took the free kick before anybody realised what had happened (including the cameraman), and the ball dropped into the empty net, curling round and over the hapless goalie as he clumsily twisted around trying to recover.
Oh, did I mention that Chilavert took that free kick from inside his own half? Yes, that happened. You can watch it here.
Chilavert also made a substantial mark on the international stage. The eccentric goalie earned 74 caps for the Paraguay national side, and was captain for the majority of his career, including at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. In what was his most impressive international achievement, Chilavert was named in the World Cup All Star team in 1998 after keeping two clean sheets in 4 matches.
For Paraguay, Chilavert continued the rich goal-scoring form he enjoyed in domestic competition. When he retired, he had scored 8 international goals, most of them in important qualifying matches (such as the winner in a 2-1 victory over Argentina in qualifying for France ’98). This eight-goal tally is more than England strikers Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler have managed, as well as former England captain John Terry, Spanish and Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola (47 caps) and one of France’s all-time greats, midfielder Patrick Vieira (107 caps).
One of the Best
Obviously, with a goal scoring record like his, and the spectacular way in which he did it, the free kicks and penalties are what come to mind when one remembers Jose Luis Chilavert. After all, seeing a goalkeeper jog forward 80 yards to come and take a free kick is memorable enough. But no one would ever forget watching him as he curled the ball straight into the top corner with more skill than you thought was possible when you first looked at him.
However, Chilavert’s goal-scoring has detracted somewhat from a fact that most people don’t realise; Chilavert was actually a very good goalkeeper. I have always been a fan of Chilavert, but even I had failed to realise before taking on this project quite how good a goalkeeper he actually was.
Since 1987, the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) have awarded the best goalkeeper of that season the prestigious award of World’s Best Goalkeeper of the Year. It is the most universally recognised award of its kind in the football world. You obviously know, because I brought it up, that Chilavert won this award during his career, and you’re probably fairly impressed and surprised by that. Well, read this: Chilavert didn’t just win the award once, he won it three times.
Just to look at some of the goalkeepers he beat to the award proves absolutely just how special a talent Chilavert was in goal. In 1995 (the first of Chilavert’s three awards), Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel finished runner up. In 1997, his second award, it was Angelo Peruzzi, with Schmeichel in third. In his final award in 1998, Fabian Barthez, Edwin Van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel (three keepers who would all play for Manchester United at some point) all finished behind Chilavert. That is how good he was.
With three awards, Chilavert stands on a par with Italian legend Walter Zenga and the immortal Oliver Kahn, and behind only Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon, four names which are no doubt far more known than Jose Luis Chilavert. What’s more, Chilavert is the only goalkeeper to have won the award whilst playing outside of Europe. This will have made it harder for him to gain the recognition required for such prestige, but he accomplished it anyway.
The accolades don’t end there, however. At the close of the 20th century, the IFFHS collected their panel of experts together to vote on the greatest goalkeepers of the previous 100 years. Chilavert had the honour of being ranked 6th on that all-time list, only falling behind to names like Dino Zoff, Gordon Banks and Len Yashin. Whilst considering that goalkeepers Casillas and Buffon will have overtaken the Paraguayan given their decorated careers in the 21st century, it is completely within reason to suggest that Jose Luis Chilavert is the 8th greatest goalkeeper the world has ever seen. And that’s not even considering his unbelievable goal scoring record.
A contrast of Character
As a football player and as a man, Jose Chilavert was a walking contradiction in more ways than one. For one, he was a goalkeeper that had a truly gifted goal scoring ability. His temperament, however, was even more bizarre than that.
On the one hand, Chilavert was the epitome of calmness. As I’ve mentioned previously, he was the long-time captain of his national side. He was a natural leader who exuded confidence to his players. On the pitch, he displayed unshakable nerves and an unnatural calmness that allowed him to take (and score) free kicks and penalties in crucial situations. On the other hand, he had an excitable and eccentric quality to his game that made you believe you were watching a child playing the game. After scoring, Chilavert would often run around the length of the pitch, jump all over his teammates and slide belly first like Jürgen Klinsmann.
He also displayed a humble and mature approach to the game that is often absent in professional players. Asked before the start of the World Cup in 1998 if he was feeling the pressure of the tournament, Chilavert responded with this:
“Pressure? This is just a football match. When you do not know how to feed your children, that is pressure.”
However, there was an altogether different side to Chilavert that seemed to throw that maturity out of the window. To put it bluntly, he had a bad temper and it occasionally reared its ugly head quite publicly. In 1997 he was shown a straight red card in an international match against Colombia for brawling with Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla. Later in his career, Chilavert was suspended for the opening two games of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea after spitting on left back Roberto Carlos in a World Cup qualifying match.
As mind-boggling as that is, all these qualities, good and bad, simply add up to create one of the most interesting and electrifying players to have ever graced the game of football. Whether it was like a Picasso or a car crash, you couldn’t take your eyes off the Paraguayan while he was on the pitch, and for a goalkeeper that is amazing. Often controversial, rarely out of form and always entertaining, it’s baffling that more isn’t made of Paraguay’s most talented and most interesting servant.
To be one of the greatest goalkeepers of a generation is a special achievement. To be one of the greatest free kick specialists of a generation is a special achievement. To combine the two is quite simply unprecedented. That is why we should always remember Jose Luis Chilavert; a beautiful legend of our beautiful game.