Updated: January 3, 2016 1:22:49 pm
Stop! You can’t shoot your own goalkeeper.” It was more a shriek than an assertive order from Lutz Pfannenstiel (roughly pronounced Fan-en-sheel).
Just 10 minutes earlier, the goalkeeper of the South African club, Orlando Pirates, had left the safety of his hotel room in Johannesburg to buy water from a 24-hour convenience store nearby. He had been warned against leaving the hotel at night, but he saw no harm in a short walk. “I tied my hair, wore a baseball cap backwards and I was on my way,” he said. Just as he left the store, having made his purchase, the cold barrel of a gun poked the back of his neck. He was ready to take out his wallet, but the sound of the weapon cocking got the better of his composure.
As he shrieked, he felt his cap being yanked off from his head and his long hair fall to his shoulders. He was now staring at the incredulous face of his mugger. “He said, ‘Oh my God! Mr Lutz, I nearly shot you,’” recalled the 42-year-old, smiling. “He kept apologising. Then he took me to the same shop and bought me a beer,” he said, laughing as we chatted at the Sabina Chandrashekhar Memorial Municipal Garden in Mumbai. Pfannenstiel was in India, scouting for young footballers as a part of the U-Dream Scouts initiative from Germany. It was that moment in the 1996-97 season that the German footballer learnt to appreciate his long hair.
To say that Pfannenstiel has had an interesting life would be an understatement. More than his goalkeeping abilities, which saw him win titles in Finland and South Africa, Pfannenstiel is famous around the world for being football’s ultimate journeyman. He has spent his 21-year career playing for 25 clubs across 13 countries — the only player to have played in all six FIFA confederations (Asia, Oceania, Africa, Europe, North America and South America). “It’s a record not even Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo can break,” he said.
Long before the unusual record started taking shape, Pfannenstiel was a promising goalkeeper for FC Bad Kötzting, a club in Bad Kötzting, Bavaria. He had already made appearances for the German U-17 side, and it wasn’t long before he was approached for a dream move to Bayern Munich. Reviewing the offer, he realised, however, it would mean becoming the understudy of starting keeper (and future Germany skipper) Oliver Kahn. “I wanted to play and not sit on the bench. Once you’re in that rhythm, you want to play football wherever they’d let you play,” he said. So he chose to play for Malaysian side Penang FC, the first of his globetrotting adventures.
Just 10 years after being nearly mugged in South Africa, he was dodging firecrackers and rockets on the pitches of Albania. Playing for KF Vllaznia Shkodër, Pfannenstiel found a different type of football fan. At away games, members in the audience would aim their fireworks at the travelling goalkeeper rather than the skies. “I didn’t get hit by any, but there were quite a few occasions where they’d land near me,” he said.
Still, those were among the “better days” of his career. During a spell in Singapore for Geylang United in 2000, he was imprisoned for “match fixing”. “Well, ‘match fixing’ is what they tried to call it,” he snapped. On three different occasions, a man he thought was an ordinary fan walked up to the German to ask his thoughts on the following weekend’s game. “If asked a question like that, more than 90 per cent footballers will say that we will win the game. And that’s what I said,” he said.
Of the three victories predicted, the first two came true while the third ended as a hard fought 2-2 draw in which Pfannenstiel was adjudged Man of the Match. “So they decided that I had correctly predicted positive results for my team and was guilty of match fixing. Essentially they were putting me in jail for winning matches for my team,” he said.
For 101 days, he was locked up in a cell with convicted murderers and rapists. With each passing day, he learnt more about the human psyche, and the pressures that break it. “I spent many sleepless nights just to stay alive and not get raped. And then there were constant brawls,” he said, pointing to a scar under his chin.
At long last, he was acquitted and released because of lack of evidence. Freed from what he still calls “hell on earth”, he was faced with a new challenge. “I was innocent, but since I did have some jail time, I had a tainted reputation and no club wanted me,” he said. That was until Dunedin Technical in New Zealand called for his services in 2001. He found a sense of loyalty in the club, and played for them for five whole seasons. During the off-season, he’d travel back to Europe on loan to various clubs.
On his first trip back to Europe, he had another encounter: with death.
Standing behind the defence for Bradford Park Avenue on a cold Boxing Day tie against Harrogate Town in 2002, Pfannenstiel came off worse in a collision with the opposite striker. So fierce was the impact that his heart stopped beating thrice — each concurrent to the three times he was pronounced clinically dead. He was revived through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but woke up from a coma a few hours later.
“Those kinds of experiences make you a different person. A better person. Earlier you’re thinking about women, clothes, cars, going out. Is it really important to buy fancy shoes? It’s all superficial. You don’t realise the importance of those small things until you lose something bigger,” he said, stating the change he felt in how he saw the game. “All of a sudden you realise football isn’t the only thing. There’s much more to life.”
Leaving prison and death far behind, Pfannenstiel returned to New Zealand for the second time in 2002, looking for a chance to live out an uneventful life for a change. He would remain there for two years, after which he was on the move again. He had already played in Europe, Asia and Oceania. North America was next when he went on loan to Calgary Mustangs in Canada in 2004. Finally, when Brazilian outfit Clube Atlético Hermann Aichinger came calling in 2008, the record was set — he became the first, and only man to play in all six FIFA confederations.
Life hasn’t turned a full circle, though. Even though he retired in 2011 and is back in Germany, his scouting and international relations work for Bundesliga club TSG Hoffenheim continues to take him around the world, including India. “All the experience I have of seeing the various footballing cultures around the world has helped me become a good scout,” he said.
Television commentary is another career he has ventured into. His speech is clear and viewer friendly, and the years of travel have taken away all traces of a German accent. There’s a twinge of British, Afrikaner and New Zealand. “I can switch accents all the time. But if I meet a new person and talk normally to them, they don’t know where I’m from,” he said.
He once thought about cutting his hair short, especially since the mane started taking a more salt-and-pepper tone. “It did save my life once. So I’m happy to keep it.”
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