The story of Lutz Pfannenstiel—founder of Global United FC—is perhaps one of the most interesting in football and is inextricable from the genesis of the club.
Pfannenstiel is one of football’s most travelled men, having played for twenty-five clubs in twelve different countries and being the only player in history to have played on all six FIFA-recognised continents. One might be forgiven for assuming the German goalkeeper, now retired, was driven by the desire for wealth—and it’s true, in a way. By his own admission he fashioned his career around the dictum “it’s nice to be rich. But it’s better to be wealthy in the head, wealthy in experience”.
He began his career in Germany, but turned down an offer from Bayern Munich as a youth in fear of becoming a perpetual benchwarmer. This omnivorous hunger to play constant first-team football would be the fountainhead of his journey, and he soon took off for Malaysia. He changed club roughly every seven or eight months, frequently so he didn’t have to spend the off-season not playing, and subsequently had stints in England, the United States, Finland, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Canada, Albania, Brazil and Namibia.
The narrative of his career is punctuated by several experiences which were, to say the least, interesting. In Singapore he was falsely imprisoned for match fixing and subjected to assault by his fellow inmates and corrupt prison officials. In New Zealand he hunted down burglars who stole his beloved jersey and is said to have himself stolen a penguin from a zoo and kept it in his bath. In England, while playing for Bradford Park Avenue, he was declared dead on the pitch after he stopped breathing three times before being miraculously resuscitated. He played in stadia where the dressing rooms were infested with cockroaches, where the toilets hadn’t been cleaned since the 50s and in Armenia where at times it was so cold that the pipes in the stadium had frozen leaving the players without running water or working toilets.
His illustrious career didn’t stop at playing, and he also served variously as coach, player-manager and goalkeeping coach for a variety of teams, including the Cuban and Namibian national sides. Since he retired from playing in 2011, he has been working as a scout for Bundesliga club TSG Hoffenheim.
But the journey didn’t stop there. In 2009, informed by his experiences around the world, he founded Global United FC, an international non-profit football club. Recognising the emancipating power of football as a cultural institution around the world, GUFC aims to raise the issue of global warming to prominence in the conscience of citizens and leaders in every nation. Pfannenstiel has been able to attract over 150 players and coaches—both active and retired—from around the world, including legends like Cafu, Chilavert, John Barnes and Henrik Larsson.
The team have played numerous benefit matches in order to raise the profile of a variety of issues. In October 2012, they were present at the 2012 MTG United for Peace Cup, a children’s charity that arranges local youth tournaments for kids aged 12-14 from around Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Africa and the UK, and last year invited the winners to play at the finals in Oslo. The aim of the cup is to educate the children who get involved about the concept of peace and its possibilities, and GUFC were present at the finals to play three international matches.
They played against a Swedish team that included form international Roland Nilsson, who played for Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry before winning a Swedish domestic title managing Malmö. Then they locked horns with an English team that included former Arsenal and England striker Tony Woodcock and former Arsenal, Manchester United and England defender Viv Anderson. They rounded off the tournament playing against the tournament’s best youth players, and by the end had fielded a team that had over 1,000 cumulative caps.
In March 2012 they organised a ‘Climate Kick’ match in Windhoek, Namibia to celebrate World Water Day. Their outreach there involved organising games with school children and an exhibition match against a Namibian legends side. Whether the charity can be a long-term success remains to be seen, but this event managed to attract sponsorship from organisations and companies as varied as the First National Bank, the Hilton Hotel in Windhoek, AirNamibia and TSG Hoffenheim. With all this sponsorship, Pfannenstiel’s ideas appear to be materialising successfully. Last year was the third year in a row that Global United were active in awareness-raising in Namibia, and they’ll be back for 2013 to continue. Interestingly, the Namibian government appear to be fans of GUFC too, with their Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture providing backing for the events.
When footballers—or anyone with a significant public profile—get involved in charity work, they are frequently prone to accusations of altruism and giving-for-the-sake-of-it. Any such aspersions cast against the organisers of GUFC events should be immediately nullified, though. Pfannenstiel’s commitment to grassroots events that engage young and often rural, disenfranchised children, show his nuanced understanding of the heterogeneity of the problems facing the Global South. In Namibia GUFC were responsible for the provision of textiles and solar-powered reading lamps, and spent time planting trees.
In 2010, after the devastating floods, Pfannenstiel journeyed to Pakistan. By his own admission, they eschewed the typical publicity-generating strategies of “standing around taking pictures or handing out money” and spent five long days shuttling supplies and medicines for people. Around areas in Germany where there are sustainable development issues, GUFC matches have been coupled with vigorous publicity campaigns. In Ruhpodling, Pfannenstiel spent five days and four nights in an igloo—an event that was also supplemented by the staging of talks about how sports might be used to influence social and economic issues.
Pfannenstiel’s igloo sojourn seems to have whetted his appetite for the colder climates, and GUFC are now attempting to organise a match on football’s only unconquered continent: Antarctica. That FIFA recognise every single continent other than this one is not surprising. No one yet has tried to organise football there, with temperatures in the winter generally being −80 °C or below. Despite the harsh environment and lack of permanent residents, it can’t be ruled out that football has ever been played there before. Many nations have research stations dotted around the continent, and come summer, when temperatures are less extreme, there can be up to 5,000 researchers and support staff making a temporary home there. It would be naïve to deny that researchers hadn’t tried to have a casual kick about somewhere, indoors or outdoors.
There exists an elusive photograph of a British exploration team playing in the snow circa 1914 but ultimately it remains unverifiable and unofficial. In 2010, three Australian celebrities and sports personalities travelled there to attend the world’s first Environmental Youth Summit in Antarctica and during their stay played what is probably the first Australian Rules Football game. The University of Antarctica, an apocryphal hoax that for a while stirred some interest a couple of years ago, claimed to regularly organise matches between its team and other local teams. In 2009, eight people played a four-aside match under the auspices of Puma’s One Day One Goal for global peace campaign. But all of this is the closest the continent has come to organised football.
GUFC are the first to try and organise a proper, close-to-regulation match there (there are no fields to play on, obviously). The plan is not, of course, to try and brace the harsh winter conditions and play in the thick of the snow. Pfannenstiel remains optimistic about the possibility of being able to play on an airstrip near one of the research stations, and after the publicity he has been able to generate around the world, he knows that this would be their biggest coup yet. Arrangements for the match still remain primitive, and the tentative date is sometime during 2014. If Global United and Pfannenstiel can make the match happen, then history will remember their names—and conquering football’s only unconquered continent will surely generate enough publicity to make all of his suffering worthwhile.
By David Dodds
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona