He is their nation's biggest football star, famous for his legendary forays upfield as much as for his extravagant displays between the posts. Paraguay's goalkeeper and captain José Luis Félix Chilavert speaks candidly to FIFA.com about his year, the world of football and his future in the national team.
FIFA.com: So how was 2002 for you in sporting terms?
In football terms, it was positive. I never missed a game for Racing Strasbourg and helped them back into the French first division. It was really great up until July. Then there were problems not really to do with football... they didn't want to pay what we'd agreed in our contract. If you asked me whether there are any differences between European and South American football I'd have to say yes. In South America, we work much better.
Do you have any inclination to play in Europe again?
No, all that's finished. It would be difficult at my age, anyway. It was a fantastic experience, though, living in a medieval city like Strasbourg. The fans were great and they really took to me. Even they were surprised that I'd agreed to play for a small club, but my objective was just to get out on the park and show what I could do. In the end, we won the French Cup and were promoted to the first division all in the same year. It was fantastic!
Who is the number one keeper for you at the moment?
As far as my style of play goes, there's nobody I really like. But as a shot-stopper and for his personality, Oliver Kahn is the best by far. He showed his quality in the World Cup, even though he's got weaknesses just like everyone else. He needs to iron out a few flaws in his game, like playing with the ball at his feet and coming out of his area as a sweeper - but you can't do that overnight.
On that subject, Kahn was the first keeper to be shortlisted by FIFA for World Player of the Year...
That just shows what a difficult job goalkeeping is. If you think all we need to do is stop the other team from scoring, then you don't even notice what we do. That's such a negative way to look at it. On the contrary - a good team starts with a good keeper. The Brazilian side of ‘82 was fantastic, second only to the Pelé and Garrincha team, but the problem was they had Valdir Peres in goal. Every time their opponents attacked, they scored. Enough said.
Do you consider yourself a pioneer among goalscoring keepers?
It's just a question of circumstances. A lot of people were against my way of playing at the start. When I started coming out with the ball at my feet for Real Zaragoza in 1988 the fans used to freak out and scream at me to get back in goal. I see it as a way of helping your team to win. If you've got a goalie with a good shot you ought to make use of it. I've never stopped to think about what others are saying. I just rely on my abilities. Later on, I started to practise penalties and free kicks until they gave me the job for real.
What is the most spectacular goal you have ever scored?
The best was against Carlos Navarro Montoya of Boca Juniors when I was playing for Vélez Sarsfield. The ground was packed out and we needed to win to stay at the top. Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia were both playing I remember. I scored from a free kick, and it was one of those that can be put down to technique rather than power. It wasn't a fluke, it was the reward for hours of work... I always used to stay behind after training and take 80-120 free kicks. That was how I got better.
I scored another one against Germán Burgos of River Plate with a free kick from behind the halfway line. The game had been stopped for a foul in our half. Burgos had come out of his goal and was talking to a defender without looking at what was going on. I went upfield to complain about the foul and when I was five yards away from the ball, I saw what was happening and just decided to hit it. My team-mates were yelling "Stop, Stop!" but I screamed "Get out of the way I'm going to whack it!". I told the ref to duck and everything worked like a charm. The ball looked as if it was going well over, then suddenly it dipped and dropped behind the keeper and went in. I always say that an angel put that one in for me. If I took another 1,000 kicks like that, I'd never score another one like it. That time it did go in and it won us the game and made history all into the bargain.
And what is the craziest goal you have scored?
Against Real Sociedad when I was playing for Zaragoza. 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 team-mate covering the goal for me. 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.
Being impulsive has caused you a few problems in your career. Do you ever regret that incident with Roberto Carlos? (Editor's note: Chilavert was suspended for four matches for spitting in the Brazilian's face after a 2002 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match in 2001).
Sure, it caused me a few problems, but you have to judge things in their context to understand why people react like that. Brazil would have been knocked out if they'd drawn or lost that match. Roberto Carlos was taking long-range shots throughout the match, just like he always does, but he couldn't score. I caught everything. Then he started taunting me when they went 1-0 up, gesturing with his testicles, everything. At the end of the match, we went up to salute our fans and he came running up alongside to continue.
Well you have to put up with a lot over the 90 minutes, but after the game, no way. I had to control myself because I knew that if I'd hit him, I would have missed the World Cup qualifiers. The image that was screened worldwide was of me spitting and not the aggression or provocation that led up to it.
You mentioned the FIFA World Cup. Were you disappointed with Paraguay's showing? Some players have been really hard on Cesare Maldini…
Everyone's got their own opinion. I said everything I had to say to Maldini to his face, man to man. I don't want to defend him, but I will say his appointment was fantastic both from an experience and a prestige point of view. The fact that the results failed to follow is another matter. We didn't have the best of World Cups because most of our players were physically tired. We did what we could. Maybe we could have given more, but it's over now. There's no point in talking about it afterwards.
Against Germany, it looked from the stands as though you could have beaten them if you had just lifted yourself a bit more. What was the feeling on the pitch?
Given that Germany didn't attack for the last 20 minutes, lots of people said "they should have brought on Cuevas", so he could have scored another two goals like he'd done against Slovenia. But what a lot or people don't remember in the Germany game is that I saved five one-on-ones - we could have lost 3-0! And then what happened afterwards? People started criticising, but it's all too easy to say that the guys on the bench are the best. I still feel good about what we achieved. The statistics say that we were second best in South America after Brazil. Argentina went out quickly and I was expecting a lot more from Ecuador and Uruguay, but that's the World Cup for you: when you're down, you don't get time to recover.
Do you think you will carry on playing for Paraguay?
I'm thinking about it. I know it's time for change. The qualifiers start in September and I've already spoken with the heads of the federation. I'll make my decision when I get back to work. The desire's there, I'm just as excited as I was when I started out, but I have to have a look at the technical staff and the environment and see if we have a good group of players.
Talking of change, are there any young Paraguayan players that have impressed you?
The U-20s that are playing in Uruguay are a great team. Paraguayan footballers are very adaptable, but the small size of the market in our country is a problem. Young players between 17 and 19 start to think they're gods once they've had one good game in the first division. They start going to discos, chasing models and drinking after matches. A veteran like me has to fight against that kind of behaviour. If they want to go far in the game, they've got to improve their skills, work hard and take care of their private life. I can help them, but it's really got to come from them.
Is it unrealistic to imagine Chilavert between the posts at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany?
When I look at the likes of Peter Shilton, Dino Zoff, Roger Milla and David Seaman, I reckon I could do it. We'll have to see, I want to take it step by step, keep working hard and see if I can play the qualifiers. After that we'll see. If I have to step down, I will. I've never thought of myself as a god. I was born in a poor family and went barefoot until I was 7. Maybe I'll hardly get a mention in the papers over the next year. Life goes on, but football comes to an end. It reminds me of the lyrics of the tango "la alegría de haber sido y la tristeza de ya no ser…" ("the joy of having been and the sadness of no longer being...."). You've got to be realistic and make the most of things as they come.
So in other words you could still be the first keeper to score in the FIFA World Cup?
I tried my best at France 98 and I almost scored a spectacular one in Asia, but the Slovenian keeper made a great save. One thing's for sure: if I make it to Germany, I'll try to do it again!