In Chelsea’s summer of youth, Old Man Wilfredo is doing the ol’ Dylan Thomas, and not going gentle into that good night. If he had his way, he’d probably play forever. After all, Willy Caballero only lives for two things, his daughters and his football.
“[Football is] forever. Here at Chelsea, at a table in my house, in a bar and anywhere else. To meet with friends who are also players to watch football and analyze it still draws me to it.”
“I live for football and consume it whenever I can. My daughters won’t let me retire. Many times I joke at home that this will be my last year, and they tell me that I won’t be able to live without it. I need to play it, watch it on TV or know what’s going on. It’s what I like, to analyze and see what we did well and what we did wrong.”
”[But] what I dream about most is for my two daughters to have happiness. That they may create a beautiful family. I have no dreams of titles, games, or plays, because when I had them, they made me more selfish. I set goals, but my dreams are for [my daughters]. Not everything has to end in a tournament.”
Just one month shy of his 38th birthday — closer to the coaching staff in age than to the next oldest player by a couple years! — Caballero’s perspective is certainly one of wisdom and experience rather than youthful exuberance. For him, football is a way of life, but at the same time, at this point in a career that’s taken him from the depths of Spain to the top of England and even the Argentinian national team, it’s more about the journey than the destination.
“What football really means, is to play game by game, for everything. Success is when a [teammate] comes to you, gives you a hug and tells you that you deserve it. Those people who value effort and make you feel what success is.
“There are people who think that success is winning titles. For me it is to keep my family as I keep it. The goals are always, ‘meh’. But having spent so many years in the [Spanish] Second Division [with Elche] makes me see things differently. We were considered second-hand players, who didn’t give the maximum effort. And today I meet with many of them in the best leagues, I hug them and tell them they deserve it, of course.”
And it is that sort of perspective that makes Caballero an important part of Chelsea. It’s not just that he’s still a good goalkeeper and a capable backup. It’s that he’s a good goalkeeper and a better person, a great mentor, and an important leader on and off the pitch.
“I came [to Chelsea] because I love what I do. I don’t know how to do anything else that isn’t training and playing football. Being here, even if I don’t get to play, I push on and I try to achieve my best form to be able to contribute in my own way. [...] Sometimes a team needs you more off the pitch than on, and you are just as important.”
“When my contract was reaching its end and they offered me a renewal, it’s something that at my age these big clubs don’t do. They can bring younger goalkeepers. My impact on the group and how I was involved were the factors that brought the renewal to the table.”
“The season is long. Whoever plays, represents the team on the pitch. But the players on the sidelines represent the team every day, too. [Being influential] when you don’t play shows that you’re a positive type for the group. Don’t make bad faces. Always look ahead.”
In a professional career spanning nearly two decades, Caballero has seen and done it all. He started at Boca Juniors and took the leap to Europe only to end up mired in second division football in Spain. He came close to stopping his career when his eldest daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of ocular cancer. She beat the disease, though doctors were only able to save one eye. It took an injury crisis at Málaga in 2011 for his big break, arriving as an emergency transfer past the transfer deadline. Everything happens for a reason, some would say. You have to roll with the punches, others might add. Adapt and make the best of every situation. As in life, so on the football pitch.
”I was lucky. I started my career with Carlos Bianchi and he was a born winner. I had José Pekerman, who bet a lot on young players. I had Marcelo Bielsa, of whom no one can speak badly — me neither! I had Manuel Pellegrini, a coach who plays very well. Pep Guardiola, who is the best in teaching and training. It’s clear how [well] his teams play. I had Antonio Conte, who is another winner.
“But there is no single way to play football. That is a sin that many players from Barcelona have, who conceive only one way to win, because it is the one they always practiced. There is more to it than that. Sometimes you can elaborate. In other times, you can create. Other times, you can’t do a thing. That is how coaches teach you. This is how football evolves. Or everything would be like it was 30 years ago.”
-Wilfredo Caballero; source: Enganche
Caballero starts his third season as backup goalkeeper at Chelsea. He’s been the perfect backup and it’s not inconceivable that he will be here for a very long time yet, as a player and as a coach, if he so chooses.