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Dec 22, 2010

Keeping up appearances

A legend during his glittering football career and now a TV star, goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff achieved things during his career that were seen as impossible.

Aspart of the great Belgium team of the 1980s, he was a runner-up in the 1980 European Championship and a semi-finalist at the 1986 World Cup. During his six years at Bayern Munich, he won three Bundesliga titles and was a European Cup finalist. He was voted the best in his position in the world in 1987 and six years ago Pele named him as one of the 125 greatest living footballers.

In his post-football career, he has become a genuine television star through his own reality television show, De Pfaffs, which has followed the family in their everyday life for ten years now. The whole family became household names, and its success took Jean-Marie by surprise.

As ESPNsoccernet meets the Pfaffs in a tavern in Brasschaat, eldest daughter Kelly explains that the show got started after a parody in a TV show in which she featured. Jean-Marie takes up the story: "Everybody laughed at first, but we have 800,000 viewers on average and it seems to keep going. And it really is for this home audience as [broadcaster] VTM can be seen in Flanders alone, so 800,000 is quite a number. It's also broadcast in Holland now, for 1,200,000 viewers!

"There is no script - that is what happens. That is who we are. We're very happy with it being so successful but that success is really down to the uncomplicated nature of the programme, of the way it shows us as we are."

He is a naturally engaging speaker. A short question prompts a long answer, interrupted now and again when he shouts out a hello or goodbye across the tavern. Asked about his time at Bayern, he dives into the memories.

"It is impossible to forget. I played there for six years, won three Bundesligas, two cups. Played the European Cup final, runners-up against Porto. I was the first Belgian to go abroad like that.

"Everybody thought it all would be very easy and Jean-Marie would do it, but when it's you standing there ... going from Beveren, an amateur club, whom you've helped become Belgian champions, win the cup ... then the Golden Shoe, and then a big transfer to Bayern ... it's all changed so much.

"I love football and I always worked hard and was rewarded. In my day, we didn't have the planes and the impeccable organisations everywhere. We washed our own kit, rode our bikes to work through the rain and to training because we played football to have some extra cash. The money they make now is incredible. You know, a young lad has to dream, and a kid has to try to make that dream real ... but, of course, I'm no kid now. Football is for the young lads now. I have my family and my occupations, and I'm not really in that whole world now."

The financial differences now, two decades on from his retirement, extend to the gulf between clubs. "The difference between the bigger clubs and the smaller ones isn't fair on the fans," he says. "It's the people's sport, so it should try to give as much as possible to as many people as possible.

"There should be a budget for the top division, for second and third. You get your own sponsors, but money generated from the Champions League, for instance, should benefit the whole football association. But of course the stakes are so high now that no one would agree to that. When you're small, you don't really have a voice, because it's the big ones who have the power. And the small will stay small, while the big ones will become bigger."

Even the way goalkeepers play the game, he says, has changed dramatically. "It's so different. I see too many 'keepers who don't really participate, and many balls are punched away instead of held. That wasn't even in our book at the time. Punching or tipping a ball away means giving away a corner.

"And, no, that has nothing to do with the balls changing. Balls are still round, you know. That went on in Mexico [at the 1986 World Cup] as well. Every four years that discussion comes along. That is pure marketing really. The more the ball is talked about, the better."

Mexico was a peak for Belgium, as the national team was defeated in the semi-finals by a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina. It was also, perhaps, the end of a golden era that lasted from 1980 to 1986.

"It started a lot earlier, you mustn't forget that. I had been in Beveren's first team from '72, '73. It was slowly building and then there was the whole run-in towards that European Championship in 1980.

"The whole thing really started in 1976, after we lost 5-0 in Rotterdam. That is when that team started being put together. They got a little goalkeeper from Beveren, a little player from Waregem, a little player from Beerschot, in Lierse etc, and they got rid of the group of top players from the big clubs, players who could be in the reserves or injured and they would still get the call-up. It immediately changed the atmosphere.

"It was a necessary step to take. Everybody deserved a chance. Then we had a team who fought for every metre. Players who didn't want to get passed out there - who would be ashamed to be passed. That spirit brought us to that 1980 European Championship where we played four massive teams.

"They said England would rip us apart. They talked about names, but I felt we had names and strengths, too. After that first game, Pfaff versus Ray Clemence, we had Spain, and Pfaff versus Luis Arconada. Then Pfaff versus Dino Zoff. Again, they said Italy would brush past us, but it ended 0-0. Then Germany and Harald Schumacher. I played all the great goalkeepers and never really lost, apart from those final minutes against Germany, a game that went on for too long. We over-concentrated and were beaten by a training ground routine. We got a great reception in Brussels, though, Belgian really was as one.

"Then we went to Spain in 1982, against Argentina in the opening game. Reigning World Champions, Maradona, Ardiles, Kempes ... of course, we stood no chance, but we beat them 1-0, didn't we? We made a football culture of our own: one of workers. Then the second game against El Salvador, with that amazing goal by Ludo Coeck. And then in the next game against Hungary, Eric Gerets and I got injured. Sadly that was it - we lost 3-0 against Poland.

"We had a team that could have won the World Cup, and I'm not exaggerating, but some things you just can't program.

"In 1984, we had a fantastic game against Yugoslavia, 2-0, before we lost 5-0 to France in Nantes. That should never have happened. We should not have lost by that margin. It still haunts me. That tournament was a fiasco, but you have to learn how to cope with disappointment. It's part of the game but it can make you stronger.

"We didn't start too well in the 1986 World Cup, deservedly losing against the host nation. Then we beat Iraq 1-0 and needed a draw against Paraguay to go through as the best-placed third. That was a 2-2. And then came that big game against the Soviet Union, one of the big nations. Again they started saying they were better, Dasaev was better, but you know what happened.

"Then, another massive game against Spain, again going into extra time before we beat them on penalties, and then came the game against Argentina. If we don't get two dodgy offsides against us, we're through to the final. We just weren't lucky at the right moments.

"But we weren't beaten by Argentina on that day - we were beaten by Maradona.

"If you look at those six years, where we got and which teams ultimately beat us, that was an amazing time, and I still maintain we could have had Argentina. They did fear us - our organisation, our attacks, with Enzo Scifo and Jan Ceulemans - but we laid a great foundation there, on which later successes were built. Italy 1990, USA 1994 and so on. Everybody knew and respected Belgium."

And everybody knew and respected Jean-Marie Pfaff, who in 1987 won the first IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper award. Pfaff sees it as the culmination of a career of hard work.

"There are two big moments in my career. First that move from Beveren to Bayern. I wasn't good enough for the Belgian clubs. They said I was too small, I was only at Beveren. But then Bayern said they wanted me.

"And then there is coming back from Mexico, when that 'keeper nobody wanted was one of the heroes. They made me come back five times on that balcony. That was a reward for all the hard work I'd put in, and the award was the crown on my career.

"In goal, I directed, I was in the game, went for balls outside the box. That was because of the mental preparation, the mental training you have as a goalkeeper. I had often played the match in my head before it started. It's all in preparation and hard work. You don't get an award like that because of one tournament. It was the whole career. Beating Internazionale and Barcelona with Beveren, the time at Belgium, 11 years, and Bayern - that all came into account."

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