Chris Rattue at the World Cup

Herald writer Chris Rattue blogs from the Fifa World Cup

Soccer: All Whites are giants in the eyes of the fans

By Chris Rattue

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All Whites striker Chris Killen contests the ball with Italy's Fabio Cannavaro. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Whites striker Chris Killen contests the ball with Italy's Fabio Cannavaro. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Marcello Lippi, Italy's World Cup winning coach, was seeing giants where none existed.

Harangued by the Italian press after the shock draw with the All Whites, he kept suggesting that his side had played into the hands of opponents who were "two metres tall".

Yes, Rory Fallon - who battered the Italian defenders - is a big lad. But at 1.9m, he and Chris Wood are the tallest of the All Whites. Two tallish players hardly constitute such a threat.

Never mind, though, because these All Whites have sprung up to become larger-than-life figures. They have grown an arm and a leg in their international soccer status and the public's heart and mind.

They were a disparate mob to begin with, from all walks of soccer life.

They talked confidently and had a few results to back it up, but few expected them to give the World Cup the sort of shake that they have.

Those of us who have followed this team know their stories well. No New Zealand sports team has been as heavily profiled in a relatively short space of time.

Now, though, there is mass appeal and a larger audience is on the prowl.

From the injury-plagued world of goalkeeping hero Mark Paston, to the glittering career of Ryan Nelsen, and all points in between, they have turned out to be a remarkable bunch.

I'm not all that fussed on comparing sporting achievements. The business of ranking Peter Snell's Olympic medals against John Walker's gold, or winning the first Rugby World Cup, or our various aquatic achievements and so on and so forth, has always seemed unnecessary and even crass.

Enjoy each success for what it is.

But for romantic sporting adventures, the only one to compare with this short, sharp shock was the 1982 All Whites campaign which took that team to the World Cup in Spain.

The surprise element sets the two soccer journeys apart from the rest.

Many of the current players have persevered through the tough times of professional sport, battling for contracts and game time.

They include veteran Simon Elliott, one of the stars, who at 36 is still without a club, having been cruelly cut just before the new American season began.

Elliott feared his career was over just a couple of years ago because both his Achilles tendons were wrecked - one through soccer and the other medical misadventure.

His career was saved when he was introduced to a Scandinavian tendon guru who made an almost instant diagnosis, and set a recovery plan.

Others, such as Leo Bertos, have finally found a home, in his case at the Wellington Phoenix, after fruitless years trialling for English clubs, sleeping on floors - including Fallon's - and starting to wonder if professional soccer was the life for him.

Ivan Vicelich, another veteran, had retired from international soccer before answering coach Ricki Herbert's distress call when Ryan Nelsen was injured before last year's Confederations Cup.

What a year it has been for Vicelich, who led Auckland City to unexpected glory in the club World Cup, and was named Oceania's player of the year.

The stories go on and on, from the Auckland-born Winston Reid being snared from Denmark where he has lived for half of his young life, following an inquiry from TV3, through to the England-raised Tommy Smith declaring for New Zealand where he learnt his soccer.

But the central figure, without a shadow of a doubt, is captain Nelsen.

There are many important people in this story, including coach Ricki Herbert and those around him.

They are a united nations of sorts, including doctor Celeste Geertsema, of South African origins, the first woman team doctor at the Fifa World Cup, and technical director Raul Blanco, the Argentinian and adopted Aussie.

Nelsen, though, is the driving force. His ability alone in the heart of the defence keeps New Zealand in games, but his presence, the respect he draws, is the factor that makes the whole shebang work.

Players such as Jeremy Christie, the midfielder, have recounted how Nelsen - a star with Blackburn Rovers in the English premier league and our only top-drawer professional at the moment - commands, but also fits in.

"He just has a laugh like everyone else when we go into camp," Christie said last week. "To me, I would say he is the perfect captain."

Insiders say that what Nelsen wants, he gets, but that he is always acting in the best interests of the team, and is no prima donna. As a result, there are no cliques.

Nelsen is clearly a smart man, but also has an uncomplicated handle on life.

He quit the New Zealand team for a few seasons, to establish a professional career which had its roots in the American college system.

The magnitude of his achievement in captaining an English premier side is probably overlooked in New Zealand, although perhaps no longer.

And you can see the commitment to the Kiwi cause before games, etched on his face, and in the way he stamps a hand over his heart.

I wrote before the team headed to South Africa that he is the most significant player in the history of the All Whites and I am doubly sure of that now.

The game has a chance, in its limited way, to re-write history, to turn a corner, to find a new place in New Zealand life. And this is largely down to one man.

Wynton Rufer may be regarded as the best player we have ever produced but no one has had a greater effect on the national side, and given recent events the potential future of the game.

The former All Whites and Auckland City coach Allan Jones recounted to me recently his early recollections of Nelsen, from when Jones was director of New Zealand coaching.

"It is very difficult to compare players save this. Rufer had an amazing range of technical ability coupled with high athleticism," Jones said.

"He could reel off a sub 50 second 400 metres at the drop of a hat.

"On the other side, Nelsen had an extremely high tactical understanding of the game and his appreciation of those issues were world class at the age of 15 or 16.

"He also demonstrated leadership qualities way beyond his years, carrying a maturity on to the field that many senior players would have envied."

He added: "Ryan comes from a hugely supportive family and even though the old man was very much a rugby fellow, he and Ryan's mum were always so hospitable to the code and its young players.

"When we used to have the international youth clinics in Christchurch, they would always throw on a BBQ for the lads.

"I always appreciated this as the NZFA never had any money for things like food. From that, he was always a lad with both feet firmly on the ground."

There is so much about New Zealand soccer in those words - the up-and-down finances, the poor cousin status, the dogged work to keep trying to develop great players, and the determination that our best players (and often their families) have had to show to make it in the professional world. It has been a tough road full of pot holes, and not too many pots of gold.

Even that fabulous national league of the 1970s, which gave birth to the 1982 All Whites, is - sadly - just a memory, and the hard-nosed and filthy-rich professional game has actually robbed New Zealand of opportunities such as bringing glamorous teams to play around the country, as used to occur.

Those two World Cup draws, those two group points, have been hard earned.

This week's wonderful afternoon in Nelspruit, when the All Whites drew with Italy, was not only a moment for wild celebration. It was also a nod to the game's fighting spirit and survival instincts in New Zealand.

Soccer has not always been kind to itself. Yet in clubrooms and on fields around the land, it has persevered in its own way because people from so many walks of life, and races, love this game.

It is also developing in different ways, as witnessed by the various unofficial leagues of nations, where new immigrants play their own form of World Cups, in what can be very heated battles.

Who knows if this World Cup will see a definitive re-birth? But with Fifa millions in the bank, and interest at an incredible high, soccer has a golden chance.

And finally, it had a truly golden day, in a far-off land, at a place so remote that the World Cup stadium at Nelspruit may turn into a white elephant after the tournament.

Whatever happens to the Mbombela Stadium, the name Nelspruit will live on in New Zealand sporting lore, the place where the crazy past came together perfectly on a wonderful day.

- NZ Herald

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