On the pitch with Schumi and his driver soccer team
There are a few sportsmen in Germany who will be remembered forever. Boris Becker, the great tennis hero; Franz Beckenbauer, one of the most elegant soccer players of all time; and of course, Michael Schumacher, the man who holds all Formula One records and decided to retire from Grand Prix racing two years ago.
But for a “pensioner”, Michael Schumacher lives a very busy life. Motorbike tests and races, parachuting and one of his biggest passions, playing football, keep him very busy indeed! For several years he organized charity games with his team “Nationale Piloti” against VIP all-star teams ahead of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. Despite the fact that he is no longer involved in the race, he continues to lead his soccer team as captain onto the pitch.
During the past ten years I have covered seven or eight of these charity matches as a Reuters photographer. This year a dream came true.
Friends of mine at a local PR agency were asked to organize the event and to find a bespoke VIP all-star team including a couple of soccer players (former sport professionals, media people etc…) to support “Nationale Piloti”.
A few phone calls later, I found myself as substitute goalkeeper on the bench for Schumacher’s team, along with Formula One drivers Nico Rossberg, Sebastian Vettel, Giancarlo Fisichella and ski racer Christian Gedhina. After getting a lift in a German national soccer team bus from Euro 2008 to the stadium containing more than 8,000 spectators, to face the VIP all-star team with players who, collectively, have played more than 2,500 German Bundesliga matches, my heart was definitely pumping fast. Even faster than when I enter a stadium, with my photographic gear, to shoot a match for Reuters. Also, imagine the surprise on the faces of my colleagues – agency and newspaper photographers I have worked with for years – who, this time, were to take pictures of me playing for Schumacher’s team.
Above: Team picture of “Nationale Piloti” with Michael Schumacher (Front row 2ndL), Nico Rossberg (Back row 4thL) and Reuters photographer Kai Pfaffenbach (3rdR) – Photo by Reinhard Paul
After a very warm welcome by the sporting heroes, a friend from a local amateur soccer team and myself warmed up, put on our match kit and watched the first half of the match from the substitutes bench. Early in the game, the goalkeeper from Schumacher’s team pulled a muscle in his leg. “Dottore Mario”, the Italian coach of “Nationale Piloti”, told me to get ready to replace him at half time, at the latest.
With heavy rain and slippery grass I was thinking “Oh my God, hopefully the Oliver Kahn gloves I use for this match will have the right grip”!
Above: German comedian Elton (L) demands a penalty. I complained about him diving – but he got the penalty and by a stroke of luck, scored! – Photo by REUTERS/Alex Grimm
Schumacher was running over the pitch like Michael Ballack, kilometer for kilometer, always ready to receive a pass and play the ball quickly. Christian Gedhina was not only a great skier in his days, he also played a brilliant game against former Frankfurt Bundesliga record holder Charly Koerbel (I suppose nobody will ever reach his 602 Bundesliga matches). And despite the fact that Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel is a very slim fellow, he has an incredible shot.
Above: Ski racer Christian Ghedina (L) and me defend against former German Bundesliga player Ralf Weber (R) – Photo by REUTERS/Alex Grimm
In the end, the soccer VIP all-star team was too strong. After being 4-5 down at half-time, I conceded three more goals. One penalty; a header from a guy who has scored about 100 goals in the Bundesliga, and a shot I just couldn’t reach – I had no chance of saving these goals. We lost 6-8. But I made a good proportion of nice saves in difficult weather conditions, which gave me a good, positive feeling despite the final result.
As a Reuters photographer specializing in soccer, this was an unmissable opportunity to participate in my second biggest passion. I have been an amateur goalkeeper for nearly 30 years, and this chance to play one important game with the really ‘big guys’ resulted in an unforgettable night! But this was a charity match, and undoubtedly the most significant result of the eveing was the 30,000 Euros raised for a children’s aid project.
However, being very discreet, I am afraid that I cannot share my impressions of the subsequent player’s night ou, in this blog – but trust my word, ‘we had a great time with “our” team captain Michael Schumacher.’
Above: Me (R) having a chat with team captain Michael Schumacher after the match – Photo by Reinhard Paul