You will probably have worked out by now the 1982 World Cup is my favourite of the eleven tournaments I have witnessed so far. There were just so many stories and talking points.
But here is one which is not so well known but none the less remarkable.
It concerns Belgium and their goalkeeper.
The 1982 World Cup in Spain started on a furrow it wouldn’t continue to plough the whole way through. With a talking point. World Champions Argentina were beaten by Belgium in the opening game. On the face of it this might not seem such a surprise. Certainly not as much as when Cameroon did the same to Argentina eight years later. But when Belgium lost in the European Championship Final to West Germany in 1980, many of their players had other jobs. They were not full-time professionals. So yes, it was a shock.
Belgium went on to win their group and qualify for the next round. They were not a team of individuals, as Argentina seemed. They were a group of hard-working players. But they had one gem. Goalkeeper, Jean-Marie Pfaff. How incredible then, they played the Second Phase without him when he was perfectly fit.
In the 2010’s Belgium has every right to be considered contenders. With their wonderful array of talent, many of whom ply their trade in England, they look one of the strongest sides on paper. One day, you feel, they will take part in a Final befitting of the individual quality they possess.
Back in the early 1980’s they were not such an attractive force. Yet they became one of Europe’s best sides. They were runners-up to West Germany in Euro ’80. A shock for Europe at the time as they were considered one of the ‘also-rans’, the sort of team who were ‘plucky’, ‘triers’, yet didn’t possess players of any great quality. They were the typical ‘sum of their parts’. They had a way of playing, which hinged on a tight defence and a counter-attack which could nick a goal and then defend it. During the whole of the 1980 tournament their four matches yielded just four goals. Mind you, West Germany’s Horst Hrubesch’s two goals in the final doubled the tally conceded by them throughout too.
The centre-piece of this defence was goalkeeper, Jean-Marie Pfaff. Until Courtois came along he was probably the only Belgian goalkeeper anyone had ever heard of. He became a star of the team. But there was one problem. He started to believe the hype building up around him and was soon almost too big for his gloves.
Born in Lebbeke, East Flanders, just north east of Brussels in December 1953. He was twenty-six when he played in the European Championships Final. So at twenty-eight the 1982 World Cup appeared to find him at his peak. He had played for Belgian side, Beveren, all his professional career.
At the end of the 1970’s they enjoyed their greatest success. They won the Belgian title in 1979, which in itself was a shock given they were up against such European elite as Anderlecht and Bruges. Those two clubs had competed in four European Finals between them in the preceding four years.
Belgian club football seemed to be very strong. In 1976 Anderlecht and Bruges were both in Finals of two of the three European club competitions. Anderlect beat West Ham to lift the Cup-Winners’ Cup and Bruges lost to Liverpool in the UEFA Cup. Two years later Anderlecht beat Austria Vienna in the Cup-Winners’ Cup with Bruges losing again to Liverpool, this time in the European Cup. But still the international side could not replicate this success.
During the 1978-79 season as Beveren were on their way to the title, they were also competing in the Cup-Winners’ Cup having won the Belgian Cup the season before. This campaign saw them reach the Semi-Finals only to narrowly lose to Barcelona. Containing a team of semi-professionals, this was an impressive achievement. Their goalkeeper played a huge part in this success.
Pfaff was revered so much throughout Belgium he won the Golden Shoe (Player of the Year) Award in 1979, having finished second to Julien Cools the year before. The top three places for this award were always populated with Anderlecht and Bruges players, so for a player from a club such as Beveren, and a goalkeeper too, this was a measure of how well he stood out amongst his peers.
His exploits for the little club from East Flanders had caught the eye of several of Europe’s top employers. Before Spain 1982, Bayern Munich came calling.
Pfaff was not the only player coming into the World Cup on the back of a big money move. Diego Maradona had just become the most expensive player in the world when Barcelona paid Boca Juniors £5m. Pfaff didn’t go for anywhere near that but £400k was still a huge amount for a small club like Beveren.
Pfaff was already becoming unpopular in the dressing room of the national team and the move to West Germany did little to reverse this trend. Manager, Guy Thys, was also becoming a little bored of him.
After the 1970’s of Sepp Maier, Dino Zoff, Gordon Banks and Ray Clemence, the 1980’s saw a new breed of impressive goalkeepers. Pfaff was one of these, along with Renat Dasaev of Soviet Union and Luis Arconada of Spain.
Although his stock was rising amongst world football, the Belgian squad were becoming irritated of his perceived cockiness.
After beating Argentina in their opening game, they eased past El Salvador and then took on Hungary in their final group match.
They were a goal down midway through the second half when Pfaff came to cut out a cross but inadvertently clattered his captain, Eric Gerets. The bearded right-back lay motionless on the pitch for about a minute and was then substituted. An ambulance was called but it didn’t arrive until after the match had finished.
About ten minutes later he attempted the same reckless challenge which this time nearly took out Hungary’s Laszlo Fazekas.
After the game had ended Gerets, still concussed, was taken to the ambulance only to find Pfaff was already in there, complaining of an injured shoulder. The ambulance sped off leaving Gerets and his teammates severely annoyed at what their keeper had just done. Pfaff’s injury turned out to be very minor, but the damage done to his reputation within the squad was almost irreparable.
PARTY IN THE POOL
Thys then arranged a poolside party at the team’s hotel where the Belgian press were also invited. Jan Wauters, a well-known Belgian commentator, was there as he was a good friend of Thys. He clearly felt secure enough amongst the group to play a prank on the goalkeeper. So he crept up behind Pfaff and pushed him into the pool. There was much laughing amongst the onlookers until they realised a problem. Pfaff couldn’t swim.
He was eventually rescued yet was furious at how he’d been treated, especially when he considered himself the star of the team. He was also angry at his manager who hadn’t even reprimanded his mate, the culprit.
Thys was later to claim he believed Pfaff had made up a story about not being able to swim.
Then came another incident when the Police were called to the team hotel. Pfaff reported seeing someone enter Rene Verheyen’s room. When the Police arrived and talked to Verheyen they discovered the ‘interloper’ was in fact his wife!
It’s fair to say the mood in the camp between the manager and his goalkeeper wasn’t great.
Thys then left Pfaff out of his team for the first match in the Second Phase group against Poland. Poland had stuttered their way through matches against Cameroon and Italy before exploding into form when they hit Peru for five. Belgium were confident as Poland’s big gun, Zbigniew Boniek, had yet to fire in the competition. Thys chose Theo Custers in Pfaff’s place.
Thirty-one-year-old Custers had just finished his first season in Spain at Espanyol, so as the match was in the Nou Camp it was considered the surroundings would be familiar to him. Custers had been the first-choice keeper going into Euro ’80 before Pfaff replaced him and performance impeccably.
Thys’ plan back-fired and effectively ended Belgium’s World Cup chances. Boniek was inspired scoring a hat-trick in a 3-0 win.
The group phase as it was meant there was only one more match to play and they had to win that by at least the margin of the defeat to Poland, hoping Poland wouldn’t then beat the Soviets. Three days later they were back at the Nou Camp and Thys decided to give a run-out to his third keeper, Jacky Munaron. Munaron played for Anderlecht and had won the champions medal in 1981. He had yet to play for his country. His debut would come in a game Belgium couldn’t afford anything other than a win.
They lost 0-1 to USSR and were out of the competition.
Thys certainly wasn’t seen as the villain of the peace. A Belgian FA Official was heard to describe Pfaff as ‘an immature child who only sought publicity’.
Pfaff went onto have a successful career at Bayern, where he enjoyed the notoriety of being a bit of a clown. Although, he had to work hard to win over the German media to begin with. Especially after conceding a comedic own goal on his debut.
Pfaff eventually redeemed himself with Thys and played in Euro ’84 and the Mexico World Cup in 1986.
He remained a colourful character throughout his career.