Despite an extended absence from the national set-up (2004-08) while he was establishing his Premier League career, Ryan Nelsen was at the forefront of almost all of New Zealand's best football moments in the past 14 years.
He is the only player to turn out at the 1999 and 2003 Confederations Cups as well as the 2010 World Cup, and would have been at the 2009 Confederations Cup if not for injury.
Perhaps the best statistic to sum up his impact is what happened when he was not there. In Ricki Herbert's tenure as national coach, the All Whites have lost 21 games. Only four of those defeats came with Nelsen on the field.
A 22-year-old Nelsen made his first All Whites appearance in a 0-0 draw versus Poland on June 18, 1999, in Bangkok, coming on as substitute in the King's Cup match. With the next game a 1-0 loss to Oman, his first victory in an All Whites shirt came against Malaysia 5-0 in July 1999 in Kuala Lumpur. He scored the first of seven international goals against the same opponents the following year and in 10 months in 2002-03 scored four times in six All Whites matches.
Nelsen's column; Five of the best
All Whites 1 Australia 0, 2002
Nelsen scored what he called the "biggest goal of his career", ghosting in at the far post in the 82nd minute to volley home a deep cross. The All Whites' first win over Australia on home soil for 13 years, sent them to the 2003 Confederations Cup and was worth US$1 million to New Zealand football. The Socceroos, with only one of their European-based players, dominated but couldn't break through, leaving the door open for Nelsen's late strike. "The Aussies were very cocky for that game," Nelsen recalled. "They were in complete shock but we had more of a desire to win."
All Whites 1 Scotland 1, 2003
Nelsen was a stand-out in New Zealand's first positive away result against a home nation. He marshalled the defence superbly alongside veteran captain Chris Zorocich and scored the vital equaliser in the 47th minute. His goal was similar to the one against Australia, as he slid between two defenders to force home a free kick from Aaran Lines.
After the match, Nelsen showed the single-mindedness, determination and high standards that came to symbolise his career: "It was encouraging but I still think we could do a hell of a lot better. I suppose we're happy with the result but we missed a couple of chances; I missed one in the first half and Linesy missed a one-on-one that could have won us the game."
The 2003 Confederations Cup was extremely disappointing but Nelsen handled himself well at that level and his displays against French striker Thierry Henry (then at the peak of his powers) caught the eye of then Blackburn manager Mark Hughes and resulted in a trial for the club.
All Whites 1 Bahrain 0, 2009
Before this match in Wellington, no one knew what to expect. The first leg, a 0-0 draw in the Bahrain capital Manama, had attracted minimal interest but the nation clicked that the All Whites were on the edge of a dream. Nike plastered promotional posters across the capital declaring 'No one escapes the full Nelsen' and that is how it played out. Nelsen was immense across 95 unbelievably tense minutes, especially in the final stages when Bahrain launched constant waves at the New Zealand goal. "Ryan was the difference in Bahrain and especially [in Wellington]," reflected Mark Paston two days after the game. "I don't know if we would have made it without him."
All Whites 1 Slovakia 1, 2010 World Cup
Slovakia had topped their European qualifying group and were expected to deal comfortably with their underdog opponents. After starting confidently, the All Whites lost their momentum and fell behind early in the second half. But they persevered, creating chances at the death until Winston Reid's unforgettable equaliser.
With many of his team-mates struggling with nerves on the big stage, Nelsen's composure on and off the ball helped them through, especially young backline tyros Reid and Tommy Smith. He also sent the message that New Zealand were not there to make up the numbers, towering over a Slovakian attacker (who had attempted to foul him) with fist raised and a stare that could break a rock.
Reid had been partially at fault for the Slovakian goal but Nelsen encouraged him to push forward in the last few minutes. "You have to chance your arm and he's a big boy with big springs so we sent him up there," said Nelsen. "I said to the boys before the game that it is 90 minutes long but all it takes is a few seconds to etch your name in history. Those few seconds happened for us in the 93rd minute."
All Whites 1 Italy 1, 2010 World Cup
It's hard to imagine there will ever be a more unlikely result in New Zealand football, nor a better display of defensive resilience. While the world champions had faded somewhat since 2006, they were still representing a nation of more than 3500 professional footballers against a country that could count around 25.
Nelsen was again imperious in defence, especially in the last 10 minutes. He continually popped up where he was most needed, showing tremendous anticipation and the experience of a long Premier League career. His displays earned him a place in Goal.Com's World Cup team of the week.
"He is second to none ... extremely inspirational," Herbert said of Nelsen. "This is a unique team. I've never seen anything like this."By Michael Burgess Email Michael