Pfaffing about

By Michael Kachitsa

Your country is at the World Cup and has just reached the second round, thanks mainly to a fine victory over Argentina. The obvious thing to do, as the tournament enters its latter stages, is drop your goalkeeper, who is commonly regarded as one of the best in the world. Right? Well that’s what Belgium did in 1982 and, if you consult summaries of the tournament, you’ll see that the odd reason usually given for the sudden demotion of Jean-Marie Pfaff is that the manager, Guy Thys, was punishing the goalkeeper for pretending to drown in the hotel swimming pool. So far, so petty. But there was a little more to it than that, though pettiness remains a prominent driver of the story.

Pfaff arrived at the World Cup having just sealed a transfer from Beveren to Bayern Munich. His reputation was growing but his popularity with national teammates was not. His perceived cockiness irritated them. While in Spain for the World Cup, the Belgium management arranged a poolside bash at the team’s hotel to which the country’s media were invited. The country’s best-known radio commentator, Jan Wauters, was there and, being a close friend of Thys, he felt sufficiently at ease to play a merry prank: so he crept up behind Pfaff and pushed him into the pool. “Hehehe!” went the revellers … until a problem became apparent: the goalkeeper couldn’t swim.

1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico JeanMarie Pfaff * Football player goalkeeper  Belgium goalie of the national team JeanMa… | Goalkeeper, Best football  players, Football

After being rescued, Pfaff was furious, with the players and with the manager, whose buddy went unreprimanded. When the press later asked Pfaff about his near-drowning, he played it down and said he had been only pretending to be in distress. Ill-feeling undoubtedly remained, however, and led to certain interpretations being put on subsequent events.

In the 62nd minute of the last group game, against Hungary, Pfaff came to cut out a cross and inadvertently clobbered his captain, Eric Gerets. The full-back, who lay motionless on the pitch for about a minute before he was eventually substituted. An ambulance was called. It did not arrive until after the match and when the concussed Gerets was taken to it, there was no room for him … because Pfaff had got there first, complaining of a shoulder injury. Off sped the ambulance without Gerets, leaving the aggrieved captain and his chums outraged.

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Pfaff’s wound turned out to be only minor but resentment towards him was major. Thys chose to leave him out for the next match and picked Theo Custers instead. Belgium were beaten 3-0 by Poland but rather than recall Pfaff for the make-or-break clash with the USSR, Thys turned to his third-choice keeper, Jacques Munaron. Belgium lost 1-0. Gone were their hopes of making a big splash in the tournament.