The most outrageous moment in the weird and wondrous career of Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert might have been the day in 1994 when he struck a ballboy during a game and was handed a three-month suspended jail sentence.
It could have been three years later, when he told reporters after a game in Asuncion, Paraguay, that, after being ejected along with a Colombian star during a World Cup qualifier, "In the tunnel, when nobody was looking, I punched him in the head."
Or perhaps it was in 1999, when he was banned for 13 months from the Argentine league, his workplace for many years with Velez Sarsfield, for attacking and knocking down a staff member.
Maybe it was his long-running squabble with a rival's coach, a spat that prompted Chilavert to tell Buenos Aires reporters after one encounter: "He's an alcoholic. He insulted me first . . . and when I went for him, he scooted off like a rat up a drain."
Then again, maybe one of his frequent political tirades takes the prize, such as the time he told an Asuncion radio station that Paraguay's congressmen are "leeches and parasites." Or when he said, prior to a qualifier against Brazil, that the Brazilian government should return territory taken from Paraguay in the 19th century. Or when he boycotted the prestigious Copa America that his country was hosting because he objected to a retired general -- suspected of involvement in the assassination of Paraguay's vice president and ordering the massacre of political demonstrators -- being named the tournament's security chief.
But perhaps Chilavert's most infamous act -- and the one that did the most damage to Paraguay's 2002 World Cup efforts -- came last August, when he spat in the face of Brazil's diminutive left back, Roberto Carlos. It sparked a brawl and resulted in Chilavert being banned from playing in his team's Group B opener against South Africa on June 2.
"This dwarf [Roberto Carlos] shouted to me, 'Get up, Indian,' " Chilavert, whose favorite game jersey is adorned by a sketch of a snarling bulldog, told wire service reporters. "After that, when they scored, he touched his genitals to provoke me. That's when I defended myself and I spat at him."
Of all the colorful characters that brighten the World Cup, Chilavert, 36, is probably the most psychedelic. His belligerence is matched by his brilliance, for beyond the wild antics and frequent suspensions is a world-class shot-stopper who has scored -- yes, scored -- more than 50 goals on penalty kicks and free kicks.
Last May, in his first season in the French league, Chilavert helped low-level Strasbourg win the French Cup for the first time in 35 years. During a penalty kick tiebreaker, he stopped an attempt by Amiens' Yaovi Abalo and then fired in the game-winner.
Paraguay will miss him dearly in its first World Cup match. Four years ago, his fiery leadership and steely play guided the Paraguayans to the second round before they were eliminated by eventual champion France, 1-0, on Laurent Blanc's goal 24 minutes into sudden-death overtime.
"We have a team to reach the final," Chilavert told France Football magazine. "If it were possible, I'd like to meet France again to get revenge for that game that France won by luck."
Paraguay is under the guidance of Cesare Maldini, coach of Italy's 1998 World Cup squad and father of Italian defensive star Paolo Maldini. His brief tenure has been marred by intense criticism following a 4-0 loss to England in an exhibition last month and accusations that he has spent too much time in Europe.
There also were reports that Maldini was upset about Chilavert interfering with the selection of the World Cup roster, stories that Maldini denied. Chilavert has come to Maldini's defense, chastising the media and telling a Paraguayan radio station that "90 percent of sports journalists in Paraguay are incompetent."
As for Paraguay's chances, the team must play well defensively to be successful. The backfield is anchored by veterans Celso Ayala (River Plate, Argentina) and Carlos Gamarra (AEK Athens), while the midfield relies on Roberto Acuna (Real Zaragoza, Spain) and Diego Gavilan (Newcastle, England). Miguel Benitez (Olimpia, Paraguay) and Jose Cardozo (Toluca, Mexico) are the top scorers, but 21-year-old Roque Santa Cruz, who at age 17 was signed by Bayern Munich, might be the biggest surprise.
"We are a small country, humble and hard-working," Chilavert told Spanish news service EFE. "No one has ever handed us anything, and the only satisfaction we have in our country is soccer."