In bed with Maradona? How about breakfast with José Luis Chilavert to follow?
“Hola José Luis?” I inquired “José Luis Chilavert?” I repeated but got the same confused response, maybe I’d been given the wrong number by my [Twitter] friend on Paraguayan radio; I decided to introduce myself “I’m Ralph Hannah, the Latin American representative for Guinness [Records]”. Suddenly the phone was passed through a couple of people and then that deep, unmistakable voice of the Intercontinental Cup winner, Copa Libertadores winner and Paraguay legend, it was ‘Chila’ himself. Everything was a bit of an adrenaline-pumped blur but by the time I’d hung up I had a breakfast date with Chilavert at The Sheraton the next morning. It was all over a certificate that I plan to present him later this year for three goals he scored in a league game for Velez Sarsfield against Ferro Carril Oeste in 1999, but we won’t let my day job get in the way of this story.
The next morning I arrived at The Sheraton five minutes early, I couldn’t see Chila anywhere and decided to ask at reception, I was met with an Ancelotti eyebrow and questioned as to whether I’d been invited or not. I thought I handled the situation coolly but when I sat down and picked up my coffee I realized my hand was trembling.
And then Chila entered the lobby.
When I looked at our photo later I noticed he wasn’t much taller than me but in that moment, sporting a Quicksilver t-shirt, cap and bristling stubble he seemed enormous. I stood up to greet him only for it to dawn on me that Chilavert has no idea who Ralph Hannah is so I waved meekly as I didn’t trust a vocal greeting not to burst out like a squeal. The former captain of Paraguay outstretched a hand that had saved his country on so many occasions and squeezed mine while very graciously saying “it’s such a pleasure to meet you”, I said “likewise”. A criminal understatement.
We sat down for breakfast, it was a buffet so I made sure I followed Chilavert and didn’t over-load my plate as I’ve been guilty of in past help yourself experiences. He went for orange juice, I went for peach juice so it looked like I wasn’t copying him too much. We went back to the table, slight hesitation whether to sit down or not, he went back for food so I went back and we chatted about his journey from Buenos Aires (where he has lived most of his life) and more small talk as I helped myself to fruit not to look unhealthy in front of a former professional sportsman.
The business side of things was over in five minutes, “I called the President [of the Paraguayan FA] yesterday and it is all arranged” he told me. We spoke about logistics, I noted down some numbers including the President of the Paraguayan FA (which Chilavert knew off by heart) and then we were free to talk football. I asked him if he remembers the game well, when he scored the hat trick that has earned him a world record. “It was three penalties” he recalled “I put the first to the goalkeeper’s left, the second to his right and then I doubted” he pauses for thought “So I decided to put in down the middle and it flew into the roof of the net” he exclaimed triumphantly and indicated with his arm thrusting it towards my face.
We talked about his old club Velez Sarsfield and the tough spot they find themselves in having sold key players, he also was surprisingly (for somebody seen as arrogant) quick to praise his competitor in the goalscoring goalkeeping circle, Rogerio Ceni. But Chilavert was most animated talking about his past, “I grew up near Curva Romero, you know in front of the air base” he said, I know it well as my sister-in-law lives there, it is the short cut from Asunción to Luque and even today seems rural with the vast land ‘belonging’ by the air force (expropriated during the dictatorship) often home to roaming cows. “We used to play there in the dirt, barefoot, until it got dark” he reminisced and laughed when he added “Our parents had no idea where we were – it isn’t like that now, everybody’s got mobile phones!”
By now I’d finished by coffee, my juice and my fruit and I sensed my breakfast with Chila was coming to an end. Then his friend (or business associate) turned up and Chila gestured for the bill, my time was up. The cost must have been a touch over 200.000 Guaranies (almost 30 quid) but I saw Chilavert pull out three crumpled 100.000 notes and when he passed the bill to the waiter he told him to keep the change, the kid’s eyes lit up, that tip was more than his daily rate. That has always been Chilavert, after the 1998 World Cup – so the story goes - with the Paraguayan players flush from win bonuses the then captain demanded that everybody chipped into a fund for the backroom staff that had traveled with the squad. Nobody said no. Nobody says no to Chilavert.
At the moment that we parted ways a Brazilian guest at the hotel walked past, he stopped in his tracks and our eyes met “Chila?” he asked, as if his eyes had betrayed him. I nodded and smiled, he sped up and I heard him call out “Chila” again. I left the hotel, it had been the most surreal breakfast of my life.
Ralph is a freelance football writer based in Asuncion. You can follow him on Twitter @paraguayralph