The Unbelieveable Story Of Football's Greatest Maverick Goalkeeper

By Jack Mcardle

News • Nov 15, 2023

The Unbelieveable Story Of Football's Greatest Maverick Goalkeeper

They say goalkeepers are mad. Some live up to the expectation. Others go above and beyond…

The German language is not short of words that convey a longing for adventure. 

Amongst others such as Sehnsucht (literally 'Desire' or ‘Longing’) or 'Fernweh' (Far pain, a yearning or longing for travel to distant places, as opposed to ‘Heimweh’ (Homesickness), by far the most well known would be ‘Wanderlust’, a term that has filtered into the English language literally meaning 'a desire to hike or roam', figuratively depicting the all-encompassing urge to travel and explore the world.

The human incarnation of “Wanderlust” hails from the same country as the word itself. 

Lutz Pfannenstiel embodies the peripatetic globetrotter spirit like perhaps no one else in the footballing world ever has, playing for 25 clubs in 14 countries over a 19-year career and standing alone as the only professional footballer ever to have played on all six continents that aren't huge glaciers inhabited by only penguins and scientists (sorry Antarctica, maybe one day).

Yet Pfannenstiel's career could've been quite different. Born in Zwiesel, a small Bavarian town straddling the then-border with Czechoslovakia, he was a promising young goalkeeper at amateur level with lower league FC Koetzting and was even capped five times for Germany U17s, playing alongside the likes of Markus Babbel and Markus Muench. 

Unlike his two colleagues who would go on to play for Bayern Munich, Pfannenstiel instead refused a contract offer from the German giants, unwilling to wait his turn in the reserves and determined to make his mark in the professional game.

The conventional thing to do would have been to carve out a career at a slightly lower level in Germany, or maybe even a little further afield. Italy? Spain? France? Why not really go wild and try somewhere further afield? Russia? Turkey perhaps? 

Not even close. Penang FC in Malaysia was to be the start of a worldwide career journey that really should be made into a film, comprising stints in England (three times), South Africa, Singapore (twice), Finland, Germany (twice), New Zealand (twice), Norway (twice), Canada (twice), Albania, Armenia, Brazil and Namibia.

It may not have made the silver screen (yet), but Pfannenstiel compiled his maverick journeyman career into 272 pages-in-print. His autobiography The Unstoppable Keeper was described as 'as far removed from a standard football story as possible. You can't do the tales justice in one piece'. 

As with all seasoned travellers, the stories that Pfannenstiel has to tell are numerous and sometimes scarcely believable. Whilst playing in Singapore for Geylang United, he was arrested and remanded in custody for 101 days on suspicion of match fixing, a charge that he denies to this day and an ordeal that severely affected his mental wellbeing and overall outlook on life. 

Two and a half years later, the goalkeeper was subject to yet another perspective altering experience whilst playing in the lower leagues of English football with Bradford Park Avenue: a collision with Harrogate striker Clayton Donaldson caused a collapsed lung and a complete shutdown of his nervous system, sending him into a coma and resulting in him being pronounced clinically dead three times. 

Despite the gravity of the injury and against medical advice, the German was back playing a week later, claiming waiting any longer would have made him too frightened to return.

As evidenced by his career trajectory, a running theme of Pfannenstiel's footballing journey was impatience, unwilling to wait on things to change and instead looking to move on to pastures new at the earliest opportunity. Despite the aforementioned difficult moments, many of his adventures paint a picture of cultural enrichment, of a man determined to make the absolute most of the privilege of playing in different continents and broadening his horizons in the process. 

From being pranked by having his clothes stolen by Vinnie Jones and the crazy gang at Wimbledon to stealing a penguin from a Dunedin zoo (he returned it after learning it was a protected species) whilst in New Zealand, he lived his footballing life to the absolute maximum and sent records tumbling in his wake, becoming the first German to play in Brazil and footballing outposts such as Namibia, Armenia and Albania.

They say a change is as good as a rest, and there is no one who embodies that mantra quite like Lutz Pfannenstiel. Despite the constant upheaval, often returning to countries several times during and after his career, he insists that his career path was not something he actively sought out, instead just the way things fell into place for him. 

Indeed, his post retirement career has been arguably even more eclectic than his playing days, with charity work and coaching spells in New Zealand, Armenia, Cuba and Namibia intertwined with roles as Head Scout at Hoffenheim and sporting director roles at Fortuna Dusseldorf and now MLS newcomers St Louis City. It would seem that the Wanderlust isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

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