Two years ago, the most famous Paraguayan in the world announced that he was hanging up his gloves for good. Since then, his unbelievable interceptions, epic duels and fantastic goals have passed into folklore, not just among fans of the Albirroja, but all lovers of the beautiful game. Now though, José Luis Félix Chilavert is preparing for a new challenge. In a one-on-one with FIFA.com, the former keeper and captain of the Paraguayan national side, who starred in two FIFA World Cup™ finals and for various clubs around the world, looks back over the highs and lows of his career and reveals exclusively: "I want to be coach of Paraguay after the World Cup."
Now aged 40, Chilavert has changed little. With his stern, unblinking expression, he looks you straight in the eye and gets straight to the point. Not currently affiliated with any club, he is focusing on his business concerns, which include a football reality show in Miami, his restaurant in Asunción, his collaboration with an ophthalmology clinic, and his extensive list of properties. However, football still courses through his veins and he is now looking forward to making a return to the top tier of the game.
FIFA.com: Señor Chilavert, it is two years since you retired and you have stayed away from the game since then. Why is that?
José Luis Chilavert: I decided to take a sabbatical, basically because I wanted to spend more time with my family. My daughter is seven and I want to spend time with her and enjoy her childhood while I can. After that we'll see what happens, because I'll always be connected with football, whether just watching it on television or going to matches. I'm not ruling out getting involved with the Paraguay national side, either as a coach or as President of the Paraguayan Football Federation. I'd like to be to Paraguay what (Franz) Beckenbauer is to the German national side. I believe that football will always be there for me.
Is there anything you miss about no longer being a footballer?
The dressing-room camaraderie, spending time with my team-mates. Life moves on and you just have to accept it although, fortunately, whenever I go to see former team-mates, at Vélez Sarsfield for example, they make me feel like I've never been away. It's like reliving my past. It's funny, you know, my wife says that I must be the only retired footballer who doesn't miss the game. I must put on a very good front.
And, conversely, do you think football misses you?
The footballing environment misses me. Nowadays there are no forceful personalities. There seems to be a real dearth of characters in the game. I think these things go in phases. For example, in my opinion several Argentine clubs are lacking a leader and talisman at the moment. As I say, these things go in phases.
When you played, all the rival fans used to insult you. However, when you moved clubs, they all wanted you for their team. Can you explain this?
Nowadays, when I go out, as a former footballer, the fans adore me, and it doesn't matter which club they support. It's wonderful. It means that what I achieved counts for something. It's hard to get a large group of people to agree that a player was very good in his position. It's not something you can tell them to do. That's the good thing about Argentine fans: they readily acknowledge what is good.
Is there one particular league or team you would have liked to grace with your presence? A country you would have liked to experience?
I would like to have played in England, as the football there would have suited my style of play. With all the crosses they put over, I would have had lots of opportunities to punch clear. My huge goal kicks would also have gone down well.
Within the world of football, you have a reputation for being a hard man, and yet those who know you away from the game claim that you are anything but. Were you playing a role on the pitch?
I created an image. For me, with this face, it was much easier to play the bad guy (laughs). But I want to make one thing clear: I try not to worry about what others think of me. I'm my own man and this attitude has done me no harm.
With hindsight, do you have any regrets?
No, I have no regrets whatsoever. It was unfortunate, admittedly, that a picture of me spitting at the Brazilian Roberto Carlos was circulated around the world. He had insulted me after the game. How can anyone think that you would attack another person without provocation? Obviously, what he said to me was not mentioned. That's football. You just have to accept it. It enhances my reputation as a villain.
Because it is only a reputation, right?
Of course! (laughs)
You recently stated that you wanted to coach the Paraguay national side. When do you think you could achieve this ambition?
After the World Cup, but we'll have to wait and see as I am currently involved in other very important projects which are going to occupy me for a couple of years. But, that's the goal I've set myself. I could apply all the experience I accrued over my career and instil my winning, aggressive mentality in the young players.
Who from the current crop of Paraguayan players impresses you?
I like Nelson Haedo and Julio Dos Santos, but also Santiago Salcedo. Santiago plays in Japan but has thus far been overlooked by the current coaching staff. There are also a lot of talented youngsters playing in the third division. After Korea/Japan, the national coach should have started working twice a week with the emerging talent to acquaint them with the national team set-up.
And how would a Paraguay coached by Chilavert play?
It would depend on the players I had at my disposal. 4-4-2 is currently in vogue in world football, although I would have my wingers make diagonal runs to pick up clearances as soon as possible and thus get to the opposition goal more quickly. My team would be aggressive from the very first minute.
Speaking of the national side, you had a distinguished career in Paraguay's colours…
That's true, but only the foreign press acknowledges this. The press in Paraguay would disagree completely. I think they are hostile towards me because I always said that Paraguayan journalists are blind to the progress being made by the national side. Paraguay are now adopting the professional approach to the game that Argentine football adopted 40 years ago, but the journalists in Paraguay still want to be buttered up, to be invited to dinner by players and be on friendly terms with them. That is no longer possible. Journalists and footballers each have their own job to do. When I played in Paraguay, I was never a friend of any journalist and so the only acknowledgement I get is "Chilavert did his bit as a keeper". However, whenever I was missing from the national side, they lost. The statistics back me up. It's interesting to note that Paraguay had never before been to back-to-back World Cup finals, and now they are heading to their third. Clearly, we have changed the mentality.
You have just mentioned your uneasy relationship with the press in your country. Can you imagine how difficult it would be if you were to become the national coach?
I would be all the more motivated by such a situation. I'm a very strong person and it would not have an adverse effect on me at all. You only have to worry when you're not up to the task. The sports press in Paraguay can cope with the very small Paraguayan market. They have a very small-minded, conservative approach to their work and are lacking in ambition. I left Paraguay when I was 19 years old, lived in Spain and travelled the world and I have a different outlook on things. It's very difficult for them to remain objective where I'm concerned.
Supposing you could create your own team with the players you most admire. Who would be your goalkeeper?
That's a difficult one. I think I would choose between Peter Schmeichel and Oliver Kahn. They are both great keepers with huge personalities. The Dane was superb at coming out and denying opponents a sight of goal, while Kahn's major attribute is his agility between the sticks. Obviously, his reflexes aren't want they use to be and he's now more prone to the odd error.
And if you had to choose a forward?
There are many, such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, two wonderful players. However, I would choose Christian Vieri. Having a tank like him coming towards you is not a pleasant experience. My sympathy goes out to central defenders with the task of marking him from a dead-ball situation. You just have to get on with it, don't you? Of those no longer playing, Marco van Basten has always been my favourite. He was a consummate finisher and a wonderful player. I never came up against him. Would I have liked to? No, it's better that I didn't! (laughs). The Dutch national side is now benefitting from his expertise.
Finally, how would you like José Luis Chilavert to be remembered in the world of football?
As a keeper who achieved great success. It's not right talking about yourself, but the truth is that I was lucky enough to win everything with Paraguay except a World Cup. Being recognised three times by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics as the best goalkeeper in the world is a source of great pride to me, particularly with so many good keepers around at the time.