Heiner Stuhlfaut and Manuel Neuer – Brothers in spirit eight decades apart

A keeper of one thousand arms, the 11th outfield player – the world-wide press had went berserk after Manuel Neuer’s performance in Germany’s World Cup against Algeria. The keeper, it seemed, had reinvented goalkeeping and turned it into a new art form.

In the following days and months Neuer was hailed for his style of goalkeeping. Very few keepers before him had ventured that far out into the pitch. His passing, ball control and understanding of the game would make him a decent outfield player in the third division some of his teammates claimed.

Neuer himself has stated that he wanted to become an outfield player during his younger days. His love of the outfield game has probably made him into a better goalkeeper. Some may even go as far as calling his skill set unique, but that isn’t fair to a German goalkeeping legend.

The lad who wasn’t allowed to become a footballer

Heiner Stuhlfauth was born on January 11th 1896 in Nuremberg. At first the little boy became obsessed by bicycles. However, fortunately he discovered football shortly before reaching his teens, joining FC Franken in 1908. However, there’s only one tiny problem. Karl and Babette Stuhlfauth, the parents of the young lad, didn’t want their son to play football.

After his many excuses had caused his parents to take note, Stuhlfauth was finally forced to admit that he was playing football in his spare time. The sport was wild and not something a proper young man should take up. However, his parents became persuaded by the fact that several people around them started talking about their youngster’s talents on the pitch.

At first the young Heiner started his career as an outfield player, much like Neuer. However, after loosing their goalkeeper, FC Franken’s youth team decided to place the somewhat tall and robust Stuhlfauth in goal. Despite his new and unusual position he kept excelling.

Being at the back wasn’t satisfying in Stuhlfauth’s early career days. In 1911 the 15 year old teenager decided to leave his club in order to join FC Pfeil. At his new-found club he could once again play as a striker and score goals. In his Stuhlfauth biography the author Christoph Bauenwein notes that this move was understandable, as the goalkeeping position was paid little attention to in those days.

1. FC Nürnberg’s keepers during the early days of football were men of considerable size but not talent. As luck would have it, Stuhlfauth was once again ordered to fill the keeper position back in 1914. Pfeil’s first choice goalie Georg Hoffmann had been ordered to join the war effort, leaving the position in the first team up for grabs.

During the war years Stuhlfauth was fortunate enough never to leave Bavaria. He served his time in Ingolstadt and from 1916 in Nuremberg. During those days the keeper was able to play a lot of football, both in the army and after joining “Der Club” on October 1st 1916.

How Heiner Stuhlfauth became one of Germany’s most legendary goalkeepers

These days Nürnberg tend to struggle to stay in the Bundesliga or play in the Bundesliga 2, but after World War I Der Club managed to put a legendary side together. One of the main reasons for Nürnberg’s success during those years was their skilled goalkeeper.

Stuhfaulth was tallish at 1.84 meters, but it wasn’t his height or his massive reflexes that made him a legend. The man dressed with a grey sweatshirt and a flat cap had most strikers in Germany shaking in fear due to his physical presence and the fact that he decided to give back as good as he got. That lead to most strikers backing off. One journalist even noted that some of the opposing strikers seemed to be in such awe of the keeper that they ended up placing their shots onto him rather than to his sides.

This observation is backed up by the fact that Stuhlfauth was one of the greatest penalty killers of his time. However, what set the goalkeeping legend apart from all of his peers at the time was the fact that he had an excellent footballing brain. Stuhlfauth could anticipate danger from far away. He often times came running out of the goal to thwart the opposing sides attack far in front of his goal.

About his understanding of the game Stuhlfauth once remarked:

“To leave the goal at the right time must be a quality one has been given. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a fraction of a second to get to the ball before the opponent. From the stands it might look like a mistake that I left the goal. The opponent can be two or three meters away from the ball and the goalkeeper has 15 meters to reach the ball. However, if the keeper calculates the distance correctly he’ll be the first one to the ball, because the ball is coming towards the goalkeeper and the opponent has to chase the ball.”

Those who have watched Manuel Neuer play will have seen him rush out of the box at incredible speed, getting to the ball before the opponent. Journalists have commented on the Bayern goalkeeper’s excellent sense of anticipation. In the match against Algeria many a fan had gone through heart rhythm changes at an alarming pace due to the fact that Neuer came out of the goal at such a high rate. However, his understanding of the game and the fact that he can calculate the risk of leaving his area very accurately made Neuer the 11th outfield player on that night, and in many other matches for Germany and Bayern.

However, sometimes even Neuer and back in his day Stuhlfauth could be late to a ball. Having defenders around that could understand the way goalkeepers such as these leave their goal was essential in preventing goalkeeping mistakes into becoming goals according to Stuhlfauth:

“When I left the goal I got to the ball first 95 times and I was late five times. When my defenders realized that I was leaving the goal, one of them immediately went back to cover the goal for me. I then ran 20 or 30 meters to thwart an attack and kick the ball away.”

Much like Manuel Neuer, Stuhlfauth also had some experiences playing other positions before making the transition to becoming a goalkeeper. Those years turned him into a better guardian of the goal according to himself:

“I’d recommend every goalkeeper to play as a striker in youth teams, as the goalkeeper also should be part of the match outside of his box. Before I started to tend goal, I played as a left winger for several years during my younger years.”

Having to dive for a ball might look spectacular, but according to Stuhlfauth that move should be the last viable option for a goalkeeper. During his years in the goal at Der Club the keeper preferred to prevent attacks or simply use his feet to keep balls out. Making a dive to make a save was somewhat of a defeat for the legendary goaltender.

All of those qualities mentioned above made Stuhlfauth into one of the most popular footballers in Nürnberg during his career. Those who have written about the history of Der Club during the 1920s have mentioned the keeper as one of the key players of 1. FC Nürnberg’s golden generation. During that decade Stuhlfauth and his team won the championship five occasions(1920, 1921, 1924, 1925 and 1927), making them the greatest team of the era.

Nujrnbergs magnificent keeper Heiner Stulfauth
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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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