You never forget the first player to amaze you. If you ask most people who first wowed them, their responses would be fairly typical. Your granddad would say Pele or Eusebio; your dad would say Maradona or Cruyff; your uncle might try and be cool and say Nedved or Batistuta – for me, it was Jose Luis Chilavert.
I can still pinpoint the exact moment. I was six years old and over at my best friend’s house for tea when we put on a copy of Danny Baker’s Own Goals and Gaffs on VHS – a video I’d still urge anyone to buy, to be honest. The bulk of it was your typical bundle of mis-kicks, concussions and general aggro, but one particular moment stood out. From inside his own half, Chilavert stepped up for a free-kick for Velez Sarsfield, and then proceeded to strike the most blistering, astonishing lob towards the River Plate goal. The ball dipped just underneath the bar, leaving the stadium shellshocked, as Chilavert celebrated with the wild-eyed aplomb he was famed for. Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked, and from then on, I was a Chilavert obsessive.
He was an animal. Everything about his play encapsulated that graceful savagery of 90s South American football, from his surging, mazy dribbles, to his buccaneering one-on-one takedowns. He did things that other players simply did not do. As a goalkeeper, he was fearless. His reactions were sharp and instinctive and almost every save was followed by a primal howl and a clap of the hands, before he called upon his defence to reorganise. He was mad. But – as everyone remembers – he was more than just a world-class keeper: he was nigh-on unstoppable with a dead ball. 59 league goals in 728 games. 8 international goals for Paraguay. The only goalkeeper in football history to score a hat-trick. Chilavert was almost entirely unique.
Sure, Rogerio Ceni may have out-scored him over his 20 years at Sao Paulo, but Ceni has never been a top-class goalkeeper: Chilavert was voted the World’s Best Goalkeeper three times by the IFFHS. He reached the very top of his game, whilst also contributing another attacking dimension that no other side could say they possessed. He was the wildcard.
The fire behind his performance came straight from his personality, which was every bit as crazy as his play. He spat at Roberto Carlos in the 1998 World Cup, and qualified his actions by claiming the match to have been a war, before demanding that Brazil return the territory they had taken from Paraguay during the 19th century War of the Triple Alliance. In a famously vicious clash against Colombia in 1997, Chilavert was sent off for brawling with Faustino Asprilla: a fight which sparked such a reaction amongst the players and staff that riot police were brought on to restore order. Strangely enough, Chilavert also received a six-month suspended prison sentence in 2005, after using false documents in a legal battle against his former employers, RC Strasbourg. It was this pugnacious, unpredictable spirit that earned him the nickname of ‘The Bulldog’ – a name he adopted with pride, even going so far as to having a print of a cartoon bulldog on the front of his shirt.
Chilavert was a one-of-a-kind player. He could have played anywhere on the pitch – in fact, he practically played everywhere on the pitch – and still, at his peak, he managed to maintain an exceptional level of performance. He was fucking batshit mental and dangerous and an endlessly watchable player: near equal parts Maradona, Gordon Banks and Vinnie Jones.
Go back and watch some of his compilations, because there will never be a player of his kind again.