5 Takeaways from Lutz Pfannenstiel's Book and What They Could Mean for St. Louis City SC
Given Lutz Pfannenstiel's escapades in and around St. Louis over the past 8 months, it should come as no surprise that he is a man who is hungry for action, causing him to bounce around quite a lot. His autobiography, THE UNSTOPPABLE KEEPER, reads more like a journal written by a great adventurer rather than an international football player-barely settling in one spot for more than a year if not for more than a few weeks in some cases and being at the center of wild stories on every continent. Call it restlessness or maybe just a desire to be tested. Either way, for a player with a position that doesn't move around the pitch very often, this goalkeeper enjoys seeking out a challenge whenever he can.
And that's exactly what he's been tasked with as Sporting Director at St. Louis CITY SC. One of the first hires for a new MLS club without a team, training facility, or development program. But perhaps he views this opportunity from the same view he had as a goalie for over 20 years: he's able to see the big picture and what needs to happen in front of him to win. Perhaps the under-construction pitch in the shadow of the Gateway to the West feels like a gateway to possibilities. He's got his work cut out for him, but maybe that's exactly what he needs to keep this globetrotter from up and leaving for his next adventure.
Reading THE UNSTOPPABLE KEEPER is a page-turner even for non-soccer fans. There are as many self-reflective musings about life as there are hijinks and sensational stories. Between recounting his false imprisonment for match-fixing and stealing a penguin, there are lessons and recurring themes that might show how a goalkeeper, who literally died on the pitch, is about to breathe new life into the soccer scene in St. Louis.
Ratko Svilar was his hero and for good reason
While some kids secretly stay up late to watch R-rated movies when their parents are asleep, Lutz would quietly watch Ratko and realized that he wanted to play soccer for a living. The Yugoslavian goalkeeper with his long dark hair played the majority of his career for Antwerp and the Yugoslavian National Team, even playing in the 1982 World Cup. And while Lutz might have mimicked Ratko's hairstyle in his career, he also realized he wanted to be a goalkeeper because of the passion in how Ratko played.
When you're a keeper you have to be like a wall, not letting anything through. And being falsely imprisoned for three months, you have to be stronger than the walls holding you in. One could argue that the goalkeeper might be the most scrutinized player on the pitch. To choose to be a goalkeeper, you have to have thick skin, a certain level of crazy in you, and a strong goalkeeper to look up to and strive to be like.
Understanding the importance of young hopefuls
Lutz has been where all the kids in St. Louis who are looking at the stadium being constructed with bright eyes and hopeful futures are standing. Well, not geographically speaking, but you know what I mean. Ever since he was a kid, Lutz would hop the fence of the nearby field in Zweisel, Germany, and train every day. He even brought his own shovel on occasions if snow covered the field. At 13, his strict training schedule made him the best goalkeeper in Bavaria, and by 16, he was playing in the top-tier youth league with FC Vilsohofen.
While the Head Coach sits in the spotlight, the Sporting Director provides the foundation for the team. It's not just finding talent, but instilling core values and beliefs. Much of a team's philosophy starts at the ground level with the aspiring youth. Given Lutz's dedication and focus as even a young player, he seems to be the perfect leader to build a relationship and establish a CITY SC identity with up-and-coming players.
A combination of patience and "Bavarian stubbornness"
He waited and waited at the beginning and hopped from team to team just so he could play. It was not about the money that he moved around so much, but the opportunity to take to the pitch and earn his starting spot. His fervor for soccer is only matched with his patience. He was always ready. It was just a matter of finding a team that allowed him to play - even if it meant leaving the most famous league in the world to play in a smaller Asian league out of Singapore.
This mentality will come in handy as CITY SC develops in the years ahead. Besides the fact we're still a few years out from our MLS debut, you still have to consider the fact that many teams in their first season have an upward climb to get acclimated to competing in the MLS. But Lutz shows time and time again in his book that he doesn't give up. As he calls it the day before his famous match-fixing trial: "Bavarian Stubbornness."
The ability to adapt to different places, players, and styles
Soccer may be the connective thread between all the places where Lutz has played, but each club is at the heart of a city with a rich and vibrant tapestry that's distinctly their own. As an outsider, finding how to weave yourself into that tapestry is a challenge. Playing in multiple countries in every continent comes with understanding how to view cultural challenges as opportunities. Lutz isn't someone that's bringing with him a know-it-all mindset from his world-class experience, but someone that adapts to the culture of the country he is in and finds solutions that will work for his team.
Time and time again, he talks about how he became engrossed in the current culture and his surroundings wherever he was currently playing. He enters each country and team with a wide-eyed curiosity to explore the local markets and clubs and to get to know the customs and traditions of the players and fans. After years of trusted friendships and working relationships, he now holds these many connections in an old plastic binder he carries around with him. This is a binder that I'm sure will come in handy as his staff begins to take shape.
Soccer and life can be serious, but laughter can often help
When you've gotten death threats, been through living-hell in jail, and then have to build your reputation and physical body back up again after months mistakenly sidelined, you have to find ways to smile through the pain. From locker room pranks with teammates to buying pet monkeys at the local market to driving a police car through a small town late at night with the sirens blaring, Lutz might have as many funny stories as he does wins on his resume. He clearly enjoys a good laugh, and it seems like his friends and teammates around him are often laughing along with him.
A good Sporting Director not only improves the sporting success and financial success of the club, but they serve as that connective thread between the staff on and off the pitch. It's hard to imagine that his jovial spirit won't be contagious for those around him. Ultimately for Lutz, it was humor that allowed him to overcome some of the most challenging moments in his life. I have no doubt he will handle this new challenge at CITY SC with a smile and a healthy amount of levity. I just hope someone keeps an eye on him the next time he visits the St. Louis Zoo.
THE UNSTOPPABLE KEEPER by Lutz Pfannenstiel is now available at book stores and online.
By Michael Haffner