The Shot Not Heard Round the World

The Shot Not Heard Round the World
I was a schoolboy in the summer of 1998, and I knew nothing of Paraguay. Who did? As would have been the case for many children, that summer's World Cup served as my introduction to this exotic new location. It was a made-up place for all I knew; their spot in Group D of the tournament quite probably awarded to them after winning a raffle. They would be whipping boys and no more: Panini album filler. It was all about Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham. These would be the star attractions of our summer. There was to be no shame in it, but realistically Paraguay had nothing to offer.

Well, maybe there was one thing: a goalkeeper who took free-kicks. To a 12-year-old of the pre-YouTube generation, this was mental. I have had my mind blown since (like when The Undertaker threw Mick Foley from the top of a steel cage), but a goalkeeper taking a free-kick? Was that even allowed? Surely some mistake.

The only mistake was that no-one had been enough of a bad-ass to try it sooner. “Chilavert the Extrovert” (tip: pronounce neither of the ‘t’s) was on set-piece duty and to heck with the consequences. Just imagine if he scored! The impossible will have been made possible: not by an astronaut or a scientist, but by a goalkeeper with a face that looked like it had been extracted from a corned beef tin.

Being young, I had not yet developed any true beliefs or ideologies to influence my behaviour, but this much was true: a goalkeeper scoring in a World Cup was something that needed to happen. The gathering weight of history gave Chilavert an irresistible impetus, like a space hopper on a trampoline. Suddenly I had a reason to get behind Paraguay. I watched their first group game against Bulgaria at home. The kick-off was 2:30 pm on a Friday, which means that I most likely pulled a sickie to get home early from school. As surely as anyone would have (justifiably) missed double maths to watch a man walk on the moon, so I made the same sacrifice to watch a goalkeeper score in a World Cup match.

In the 71st minute a Paraguayan counter-attack was foiled by a clumsy tackle from the bearded Bulgarian defender Trifon Ivanov. The referee blew his whistle, summoning an irrepressible surge of destiny as José Luis Chilavert trundled forward. The positioning was perfect: twenty-odd yards out, slightly to the right-hand side, ideal for a left-foot. This was it. The connection was immaculate, the curve of the ball arcing under the cumulative force of relentless practice and the collective will of people around the world waiting to share the unimaginable.

The keeper dived to his right, arm outstretched… and tipped the ball over the bar. The moment had gone. Chilavert sprinted back to his goal, chased by the ghosts of future regret. He couldn't take his one big chance to carve his name in the pantheon. The thing that he was meant to be known for did not happen, like Pete Best's ejection from The Beatles, and Gareth Gates's failure to win Pop Idol.

Throughout Paraguay's next two group games against Spain and Nigeria, as well as their knockout stage defeat to France, I never gave up hope that it could happen. But it wasn't to be. Chilavert would never score at a World Cup. To this day, no goalkeeper has.

The miss in that first game has haunted me ever since, just as I imagine it must have haunted Chilavert himself. But I would like to think that his brush with immortality has now taken on the guise of a family fable, with loved ones gathering on birthdays to discuss the time Gramps nearly scored a goal in front of the whole world. It was a peculiar moment that has somehow shaped me, prompting a lifelong devotion to the underdog's cause. Perhaps his own family and friends were touched in a similar way. Maybe they were imbued with an innate sense of derring-do. Or maybe they simply thought that such a cavalier attitude to defensive responsibilities was an early sign of dementia. We’ll probably never know.

To this day, whenever I happen to think of Paraguay, I think of José Luis Chilavert and his near miss. I think of the day I pulled myself closer to the television to share in some history that never actually came to pass.

For that, and for making me realise that the magic of a World Cup is not just about the trophy, I will always be grateful. And, of course, he got me out of double maths.

Words by Luke Constable
Illustration by Robert Generette III