Pfannenstiel's remarkable journey
It is one of the least spectacular goalkeeping skills, the ability to stay warm during long periods of inactivity, which is proving most useful to German shotstopper Lutz Pfannenstiel when FIFA World meets up with him one morning in early March.
Pfannenstiel has just woken up to face the second of five days of self-imposed confinement in an igloo in the Bavarian Alps, as part of a promotion by Global United, the non-profit football club he set up in 2008.
Bringing together many of the footballing friends he made during his globetrotting career, Global United play benefit matches around the world to raise funds for the victims of environmental disasters and educate people about climate change.
More than 300 football stars past and present have signed up for the project, including international stars such as Germany’s Lothar Matthäus, the Czech Republic’s Pavel Nedved and Brazil’s Giovane Elber.
One suspects that being holed up in the cramped igloo is more of a challenge for Pfannenstiel than most. A constant bundle of energy, the 38-year-old Bavarian has barely stopped moving since the age of 18, when he left his hometown of Zwiesel to spend the next 19 years travelling the world, stockpiling more experiences than virtually any player before.
By his own count, he has represented 25 different clubs and stopped shots in countries as far and wide as Albania, the Maldives and Uzbekistan. In addition to picking up league titles in Finland and Singapore, Pfannenstiel also earned a place in the Guinness World Records as the only player to turn out for a professional club in all six football confederations, zig-zagging back and forth between Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, North America and South America.
It was during this wayfaring career that Pfannenstiel witnessed first-hand the global damage being done to the environment. “My hometown is surrounded by forests and green fields,” he explains.
“People make a living from the area’s natural beauty, so respect for the environment was
drummed into me from a very young age. On my travels around the world, however, I saw people taking their surroundings for granted, littering their environment with rubbish and polluting the water.”
Football used for change
This is when the idea of using football as a vehicle to enlighten people about the dangers of their actions first came to him. “Football unites people of all ages, social classes and cultures, and this widespread appeal makes it a very powerful tool for getting a message across,” he explains.
As well as campaigning for more effective climate protection, Pfannenstiel and his Global United team-mates also provide emergency assistance in the event of environmental catastrophes.
In 2010, he flew with three former internationals (New Zealander Wynton Rufer, American Tony Sanneh and Congolese-German Michél Mazingu-Dinzey) to Pakistan after seeing images on television of the misery being caused by the terrible floods afflicting the country’s southern regions.
The scene that awaited them was appalling. The yellow-brown water had reached chest-height and the current was washing away anyone who fell into its clutches. It was hot, over 40 degrees, and the stench was unbearable as dead animals floated past in the murky water, and cholera began to spread. Corpses were laid out for burial, wrapped only in sheets weighed down with stones.
Pfannenstiel and his team-mates began handing out packages. “We worked from dawn till dusk, bringing food, medicine and water purification tablets to the people. In the five days we were there, we must have helped save around 5,000 families – not by standing around taking pictures or handing out money, but by carrying supplies to the people and cooking for them.”
The images of the suffering in Pakistan remained etched into the players’ memories long after they had returned to their everyday lives, but the sense of fulfilment was immense, as Pfannenstiel explains. “When we got back from Pakistan, we stank, we were tired and our hands were covered in blisters. But we felt great inside, because we knew that we’d done something truly remarkable.”
Similar terms could be used to describe Pfannenstiel’s roving football career, but as he explains, he didn’t set out to play on all six continents. “I wasn’t aware that I’d played on five until some friends pointed out that South America was the only one I needed to complete the set.
“As a child, I’d dreamt of playing in Brazil, but with almost no Europeans ever having played there, and certainly no Germans, I thought it was an impossible dream. When my agent told me that Brazil’s Clube Atlético Hermann Aichinger were interested in signing me, it didn’t take me long to pack my bags.”
Pfannenstiel emphasises that he never swapped clubs just for the sake of it. “In England, my team-mates used to joke that I’d had more clubs than Tiger Woods, but I’m not the mercenary people might imagine, there were always real reasons behind my moves.
“In some cases, the club or the league went bankrupt, while in others the coach changed and wanted to bring in his own players. I actually spent six years playing for one club, Dunedin Technical in New Zealand, but people think it was two because the club changed its name [to Otago United] while I was there!”
Some of Pfannenstiel’s footballing adventures, related in his autobiography Unhaltbar (“Unstoppable”), are not for the faint-hearted. In 1999, he was arrested in Singapore on charges relating to allegations of match-fixing and sentenced to three-and-a-half months in prison.
Accused of making “suspiciously good saves”, he lost 16 kilos during his 101-day imprisonment and had to fight for his rations of food to fend off starvation. While the Singapore episode is one he’d prefer not to repeat, Pfannenstiel claims that the experience led to a change in his attitude.
“I’d been a typical footballer before that, living it large with nothing on my mind except the next game of football. But I grew up after my time in prison.” Later, while playing for English club Bradford Park Avenue, Pfannenstiel was so badly injured during a collision with an opponent that he “died” three times.
“It was a freak accident,” he recalls. “I came out for a 50-50 ball, and as the other team’s attacker tried to hurdle me, his knee smashed into my solar plexus. My whole nervous system shut down and my heart stopped beating three times. If it hadn’t been for the speedy reactions of the physio, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Pfannenstiel’s odyssey around the footballing globe leaves him uniquely placed to compare different footballing cultures, and while some of his recollections might tally with fans’ expectations, others paint a surprising picture.
“In countries like Norway, Finland and England, the players are big and physically strong, and that’s something you really feel as a goalkeeper, especially the lower down the leagues you go,” he says. “But Brazil was no picnic either. Brazilians have a reputation for playing jogo bonito, and I went there expecting technical, fun-loving football, the kind you imagine them playing on the beach in Rio, but especially in southern Brazil, the football they play is marked by tight discipline and hard tackling.”
Pfannenstiel’s sojourns around the planet have changed his perception of countries in other ways, too. He cites the example of Albania: “Before I arrived, I thought it was a tough country with lots of crime. But I spent several months there playing for a team called KF Vllaznia in the country’s second-biggest city, Shkodër, and I could have slept with my house door open at night. There was almost no crime at all.”
And his favourite country? “I really enjoyed my time in Norway. The people are very friendly and civilised, the country has beautiful scenery, and I had a great time on the pitch too.”
Seventh continent in sight
Pfannenstiel called time on his active playing career in 2010, following a final stop-off at the aptly named Namibian side Ramblers FC, and he now divides his time between Global United and Bundesliga club Hoffenheim.
“I have two roles at Hoffenheim,” he explains. “I’m an international scout, which gives me the opportunity to continue travelling to tournaments around the world, such as the recent Africa Cup of Nations, and on top of that, I’m also responsible for the club’s international relations, which takes in everything from organising training camps around the world to managing the club’s partnerships and dealing with the international media.”
While his new role may mean less upheaval for his wife and daughter, there seems little chance of the restless Bavarian staying in one place for too long. Within a few days of leaving the igloo, he is due to set off for the townships of Namibia, a country suffering from widespread deforestation mainly as a result of drought.
Pfannenstiel plans to highlight the scale of the problem with another series of benefit matches involving former internationals such as former Germany striker Fredi Bobic and Zambian legend Kalusha Bwalya. In the next couple of years, meanwhile, Pfannenstiel is aiming to have a seventh continent stamped on his footballing passport, with plans afoot for a Global United match in Antarctica.
“It’s not as crazy an idea as people might think,” he insists. “Of course, we’re not going to play a match on the South Pole, that would be almost impossible, but the aim is to get a game going on an airstrip near one of the government research stations. Can you imagine the impact that would have?”
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