Soccer: Rufer - simply the best we've had

By Terry Maddaford

TERRY MADDAFORD looks back on the Oceania player of the century's star-studded career, which included scaling the heights of European competition.

Wynton Rufer was, surely, destined for footballing greatness.

As a youngster, he plastered a huge picture of Pele on a wall of the bedroom he shared with his older brother Shane in their Miramar house.

Little did Rufer realise that one day he would sit on a Fifa committee with the player hailed as the greatest.

In this part of the world, there is no doubt Rufer, who finally hung up his playing - but not coaching - boots this week, is regarded in the same light as his Brazilian idol.

Recognised by Fifa as Oceania's player of the century, Rufer enjoyed a God-like aura, especially in Europe where his goal-scoring deeds were legendary.

Banished to play in goal in early backyard matches with his brother and father, he went on to make his name at the other end of the pitch as one of the great strikers.

Kevin Fallon, catapulted to the coaching role at the Football Kingz after the surprise walkout by Mike Petersen, has no doubt that Rufer is the best New Zealand player he has seen.

"He had heaps of ability.

"When he was in the mood, he did things that left you shaking your head. It was hard to comprehend how he did some things. You would have to go away and look at the video to see just how good he was.

"He was an extraordinary young man. He had a sense of the occasion. He epitomised what football at the highest level is about.

"For sheer power and exhilaration, Wynton Rufer had it all."

In 1981, John Adshead called in Rufer for vital qualifying games in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia before the 1982 World Cup.

Some senior All Whites, including captain Steve Sumner, were far from happy, but Rufer responded magnificently.

Against Kuwait, he scored the goal that put New Zealand 2-1 ahead. Kuwait grabbed a last-minute equaliser, which meant the All Whites went to Saudi Arabia needing to win 5-0 to keep the dream alive.

Again Rufer was the trump, scoring the first and fourth goals as New Zealand raced to 5-0 by halftime. The final result stayed that way, so the New Zealanders were forced into a playoff with China in Singapore.

They were ahead 1-0 at halftime for the last place in the World Cup finals in Spain when Rufer sealed their place in the sun with a stunning 25-metre strike.

The All Whites held on to win a drama-packed match 2-1.

"That goal to me is Wynton Rufer," Fallon said.

"It was a massive contribution from a massive young player."

And, despite the obvious disagreement lately, Fallon said: "I have never had any problem with Wynton Rufer as a player."

A far cry from comments by Allan Jones, the coach of the New Zealand youth team, who took a young Rufer to South America early in 1981 and returned to tell Adshead and Fallon that Rufer "would never make the grade" and that "he had the wrong character and attitude."

From the time of that World Cup, Rufer never looked back.

He was denied the chance to play at English club Norwich City because of work permit problems. But with a Swiss father, he was able to play in Switzerland. His impact was immediate.

In June 1983, Rufer was named by Sport newspaper as the "season's top Swiss soccer discovery."

That award came after he scored nine goals for Zurich FC in helping them into a major European championship.

But Rufer and off-field battles were never far away from each other.

The following year, Zurich refused to let Rufer return to play for New Zealand.

This tug-of-war between Rufer, his European clubs and the lure of international football became an on-going saga.

In 1985, with Fallon at the helm, the NZ Football Association again had to battle to get Wynton and brother Shane back.

They defied their club to return, creating a big story in Switzerland under the heading "Stars escape to New Zealand."

"They would have walked over red-hot coals to get here," Fallon said.

Rufer was later suspended by Zurich, and by September 1986 was on the transfer list.

He was picked up by fellow Swiss first division club FC Aarau. Again, his impact was immediate.

His goal-scoring feats shot his new club to the top of the division. Coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said: "At the moment Rufer only plays at 80 per cent of his potential. At 100 per cent he will be an excellent player."

He was a star playing in front of crowds not even All Blacks could imagine.

More than 95,000 watched him play for Zurich against Benfica.

After his 1989 move to Germany's SV Werder Bremen, he played cup finals in front of 90,000 spectators.

Perhaps Rufer's greatest moment came on a rainy night in December 1993 in a European Cup Winners' Cup match.

Defending holders Bremen came back from 0-3 down to beat top Belgium club Anderlecht 5-3 with five goals in 23 minutes - including two from Rufer.

"It was an incredible breakthrough for me to go to Werder Bremen," Rufer said.

"Germany won the World Cup the next year and I was in there in one of the best teams in Europe, one of the best in the world.

"That was the dream. It came true there, everything I was striving for as a little kid in Miramar."

At Bremen, Rufer scored in the 1991 and 1994 German Cup wins and the 1992 Cup Winners' Cup triumph.

In 1993 he was the league's second-highest goalscorer as his club won the Bundesliga.

Rufer later played at Kaiserslautern and then in the J-League with Japanese club Jef United.

With such a hectic schedule, it was little surprise that he managed only 38 games for New Zealand.

His first was against Kuwait in the Merdeka tournament in Kuala Lumpur in October 1980.

His last was in a World Cup qualifier against Australia in Sydney on June 28, 1997.

Proud of his life as a born-again Christian and his 15-year marriage to Lisa, Rufer lives football.

While he and his brother have achieved much in their chosen sport, they have kept other aspects of their lives separate.

Shane, a double international in softball and soccer before he was 20, said he was never jealous of what his younger brother achieved.

"I knew as a teenager he had something special. But we did go on to play in the European Cup together and for New Zealand," Shane Rufer said.

"Now we are looking at other things. Wynton, our sister Donna and I all have two sons. That's more than half a football team."

While the accolades have, deservedly, been poured on Wynton Rufer - often from afar - Shane Rufer still wonders if people here realise just how big a name his brother was in Europe.

"That's no big deal. New Zealand is a small place."

And Wynton Rufer is a big name.

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

1962: December 29, born to Swiss father (Arthur) and Ngati Porou mother (Anne) in Wellington.

1980: Signed professional contract with Norwich City, but work permit problems prevented his playing in the Football League.

1980: First game for New Zealand.

1982: Scored in New Zealand's 2-1 win over China in Singapore to secure the last place in the World Cup finals.

1982: Signed two-year contract with FC Zurich.

1987: Left Zurich to join rival first division club FC Aarau.

1988: Signed with Swiss first division club Grasshoppers.

1989: Switched from Grasshoppers to German Bundesliga club Werder Bremen.

1989: Named Oceania player of the year, which he repeated the following year, and 1992.

1992: With Werder Bremen when they won European Cup Winners' Cup with 2-0 victory over Monaco.

1992: Played for New Zealand when they beat Werder Bremen 2-1 in Wellington.

1995: Signed two-year deal with Japanese club Jef United.

1997: Signed with German second division club Kaiserslautern for half a season, helping them to win the league.

1997: Joins Auckland club Central United.

1997: Joined his brother Shane as coaches at North Shore.

1997: Appointed coach of national under-17 team.

1998: Resigned as coach of under-17 side. He was later replaced by Kevin Fallon.

1998: Appointed to Fifa's committee for football.

1999: Appointed player-coach of Football Kingz.

1999: Played for Fifa All Stars against Australia.

2001: Replaced by Mike Petersen as coach at the Kingz.

2001: Announced his retirement as a player for the Kingz.

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