A flamboyant and outspoken character on and off the pitch, Jose Luis Chilavert left a lasting impression on South American and global football. What is more, his distinctive style between the sticks helped change the role of goalkeeper within the game.
Working at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ as a commentator for US-based television channel Univision, the former Los Guaraníes icon, who captained his country at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, took some time out to share his colourful views with FIFA.com. True to form, no topic was off-limits, including the French team's travails here at South Africa, the host nation, goalkeeping standards at the tournament and his new role behind the camera.
FIFA.com: Jose Luis, how and why did you end up becoming a goalkeeper?
Jose Luis Chilavert: It was fate, really. I started off playing as a striker with my friends in our neighbourhood, and I was very good. But one time we were playing ‘singles’ versus ‘marrieds’, and my brother, as a way of protecting me, stuck me in goal. “I don’t want you to break anything,” he said to me, as of course our married opponents were much older. I dived around a couple of times and took to it well. When later I went for a trial at a proper club, I remembered my experience and told the coach that I was a keeper. The rest is history.
Would it be right to say that it was not always easy for you to remain at the top for as long as you did?
No, that’s right, there were a lot of sacrifices made along the way. For example, when I went to try out for Sportivo Luqueno my dad didn't want to get involved and I didn’t have enough money for the bus fare, so I covered the five kilometres on foot. I was 14 and he went mad when I said where I'd been! But we came to an agreement that I would continue my studies while playing, and he even ended up accompanying me when actually I signed for the club. A year later, when I was 15, I made my debut in the Paraguayan Premier Division.
It was an interesting move, given that very few boys in South America are keen on going in goal!
Of course! It’s normally the worst player, the overweight kid or the one that brings the ball that gets put between the sticks. As far as I was concerned, having played as a forward helped, because I was able to kick the ball with power and with both feet. It’s not straightforward to keep playing at the highest level for so many years, but all those things helped me keep improving.
Is it feasible to lift the FIFA World Cup without a great goalkeeper?
Luck plays a part, but remember that a top team always starts with a top keeper. In today’s game, just like what happened to the dinosaurs, great goalkeepers are an endangered species.
Are there any goalkeepers that have caught your eye in South Africa?
Yes, the Swiss keeper, Diego Benaglio. He’s an imposing figure with a good kicking game, a strong personality and fine positional sense. He keeps things simple. He’s been the best No1 at this year’s World Cup up to now, in my opinion.
When assessing a good goalkeeper, what is the most important factor? His technique or his mindset?
He has to have three things: character, the right mindset and good technique. In that order, moreover. Character is crucial for playing in the cauldron of a full stadium, and without a strong mental outlook it’s impossible to get over mistakes. Of course, technique is important too. I’ll give you an example: it surprises me these days to see keepers kick the ball out at random, as if getting rid of a hot potato. It’s striking that they don’t really look to find a man anymore.
Many footballers, including goalkeepers, rely on good luck charms. Did you?
Never. In my view they're just excuses for the weak.
Let’s talk about South Africa. What are your thoughts on the organisation of the tournament?
South Africa deserved to host the World Cup. They put in a great effort to get it. OK, so maybe it’s not been perfect, but in a first-world country there would have been drawbacks too. The warmth and friendliness of the people are unbelievable and the stadiums are lovely. Football can really get things moving: lots of new jobs have been created here and all the hotels are full. It’s a wonderful thing.
What do you think about how South American teams have performed thus far?
They've been excellent, and Mexico too. It’s important to note that European teams have not done themselves justice. Italy coach Marcello Lippi had a go at Paraguay because, in his words, they came to defend. So how does he explain the fact that Paraguay had the better chances? Truth be told, the Italians are slow and they don't look like scoring. England, Spain and Germany have not been at their best either.
You know French football well; did their disastrous campaign surprise you?
I don’t think you can ever really understand the French. I can’t get my head around how their players, with the reputation that they all enjoy, could put personal problems ahead of the team. If you don’t like your coach, tell him what you think of him in the dressing room, then go out and sweat blood for the team. This crop of French players hasn’t matured sufficiently, they think they're stars and deep down their country doesn’t seem that important to them. South Americans would be willing to put their bodies on the line to win games.
You had differences with Marcelo Bielsa yourself at one point, correct?
Exactly. I was at Velez Sarsfield, and we didn’t really see eye-to-eye. We just clashed: he’s a leader and so am I. Anyway, after a couple of weeks, we sorted things out. We said what we had to say, and after that we went on to pretty much win everything going. He’s a very hard-working man, who likes an aggressive, direct style of play. He’s doing such a great job with Chile that they’re even calling for him to be appointed President! He deserves the plaudits he’s getting. I’ll tell you something else. There was one time when he rang me to thank me for not turning the whole squad against him, and I thanked him for the call.
Gerardo Martino is one of Bielsa’s coaching disciples. What are your thoughts on his Paraguay team?
I see a solid side with good players in all positions. That’s what we were lacking in 1998 and 2002; we didn’t have any dangerous, skilful strikers. It’s an ideal unit, with good strength in depth, though they'll need to be careful with high balls. I don’t know how far they can go, but at this World Cup, anything is possible.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney. Who’s the best at the moment in your view?
The best by far is Messi. He can win games all on his own. I certainly wouldn’t like to play against him. Cristiano Ronaldo would be next, as he needs support from his team-mates and sometimes drifts out of games. Rooney, in my opinion, is the big disappointment of the competition. I don’t know what's wrong with him, but he’s just not performing.
Looking at the price of players today, how much would a Chilavert be worth?
I don’t know, a pretty high figure, anyway! There aren't many keepers who can go forward and score goals.
Does it surprise you that we don’t see goalkeepers do that more often?
Coaches don’t agree with it, they think it puts the team in danger. But if you happen to have a keeper whose better at it than your outfield players, why not give it a try? Dunga told me once that Julio Cesar takes a good free kick and that he'd let him have a go if he didn't already have people.
Speaking of Dunga, what do you make of Brazil’s displays?
Dunga has changed their mentality: he's stamped his own on them. He’s given them an aggressive, battling style of play. And when they get chances, they convert them. They’re a great side.
Would you like to emulate the Brazilian and coach your country one day?
Maybe, but it depends on the powers that be. If Martino decides to call it a day after the World Cup and they were to offer me the chance of guiding Paraguay through the 2014 qualifiers, I’d like that very much. But just so it’s clear, I would never coach any team other than Paraguay.