Flamboyant goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff is still revered in Belgium nearly 20 years after retiring and almost a decade on from starring in a hugely popular Flemish reality TV show. Now gainfully employed as an ambassador of the Netherlands-Belgium bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup™, the likeable shotstopper looked back his career and its many high points in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.
Though he now sports a suit rather than a keeper’s top, Pfaff remains just as much of an extrovert as he was during his distinguished 17-year playing career, one he wishes he had extended a little longer: “My only regret is that I hung up my boots too soon,” he laments.
The curly-haired keeper played 64 times for his country, including a semi-final against Argentina at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico and a final against West Germany at UEFA EURO 1980. It was achievements such as those that earned him a well-merited place in the FIFA 100 list of the greatest living players in 2004.
“I hope my performances have meant something to people and especially to goalkeepers,” he said. “I like to be in contact with people and to share my enthusiasm for life. And I’m not going to be changing in that respect Goalkeepers have an entirely different job to perform to the rest of the team,” he explains, turning his thoughts to the art of keeping. “Not everyone can stand there in the middle of a big goal and face up to all those big guys bearing down on you.”
Aside from his international career, Pfaff also won three Bundesliga titles and two German Cups with Bayern Munich in an unforgettable six-year stay in Bavaria: “One of the happiest memories of my career is moving from a tiny club like Beveren, where I learned my trade, to Bayern, one of the mightiest teams in Europe. It was a whole new world for me and I grew as a player there. It was the pinnacle for me. I’ll never ever forget those trophies and those incredibly happy times.”
In 1987 Belgium’s best-known custodian became the first player to receive the accolade of best goalkeeper in the world, another crowning moment that he remembers with fondness: “That was another incredible reward for me and it was amazing to get that kind of recognition.”
I’ll never ever forget those trophies and those incredibly happy times.
However, perhaps his finest hours came on international duty. “My first great memory is the 1982 World Cup in Spain and that famous Opening Match against Argentina and my friend Diego Maradona,” he recalls. “The whole world was watching and even though no one gave us the slightest chance against the reigning world champions, we pulled off a 1-0 win thanks to Erwin Vandenbergh’s goal and an outstanding team performance.”
Four years later the Belgians had another memorable date with destiny. After battling their way past USSR in the Round of 16, a game in which Pfaff earned the man of the match award, and then knocking out Spain on penalties, the men in red came up against Maradona’s Argentina once more.
“We had one common goal in Mexico in 1986: to go as far as possible in the competition and make World Cup history,” he says. “And we made the semis, which was amazing for a little country like ours. When we got back home we realised the magnitude of what we’d done,” he adds, clearly still savouring the most momentous few days Belgian football has ever experienced. “There was a huge crowd waiting for us when we arrived at Zaventem airport and we rode in open-top cars all the way to the Grand Place in Brussels, where a black, yellow and red tide of people gave us a triumphant reception. I think I even signed the chest of a woman who, just like us, was carried away with it all.”
After those highs his career would wind down in unremarkable fashion. Returning home from Bayern for a low-key season with Lierse SK, Pfaff had one last hurrah in Turkey with Trabzonspor. As age finally caught up with him, the hero of 86 hung up his gloves and decided to try his hand at coaching, returning to his roots to take on the Beveren job. The homecoming ended in failure, however, and Pfaff has remained out of the game ever since.
My only regret is that I hung up my boots too soon.
Until now that is, with the engaging keeper revelling in his new role as one of the public faces of the country’s joint bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup with their Dutch neighbours. “This job is tailor-made for me,” he explains. “There’s more to this than sport. It’s a genuinely inclusive social project for both our countries and it will be a major achievement if it gets the winning vote.”
Pfaff’s new job is certainly keeping him busy: “I’ve given a few presentations to companies on the theme of Sport and Business, and I regularly accept invitations to events, opening and other public and private functions.”
No stranger to the limelight after his exploits on the pitch and TV, there is little doubt that this latest assignment suits the larger-than-life Pfaff down to the ground.