New Zealander of the Year Finalist: Ryan Nelsen

By Chris Rattue

Every day this week in news, business and sport we feature the finalists for the Herald New Zealander of the Year. Top honours will appear in the Weekend Herald on Saturday.

Ryan Nelsen. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ryan Nelsen. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Judging one player's influence over a team is a tricky business and open to plenty of argument.

But when it comes to Ryan Nelsen there can be no doubt the All Whites' captain was the pivotal figure in not only getting the national soccer side into the World Cup finals, but in their remarkable Group F draws against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay.

This may stand forever as New Zealand's finest hour in international soccer. As such, Nelsen may well be our finest soccer player, certainly in influence.

To remain undefeated through a World Cup group is tough, even for nations with far greater pedigree than New Zealand's - as 2006 champions Italy found out.

The All Whites could have been embarrassed in South Africa. Instead, they were the fairytale story of the tournament, despite what evolved into disappointment about not progressing to the knockout stage.

Nelsen's mana with the players, and brilliant defending, was the key to it all. More specifically, he quickly drew the best out of new young defenders Tommy Smith and Winston Reid. The rapid educating of their raw ability was essential to the team.

While not alone in proactive player promotion power, Nelsen also put in a big effort before the tournament boosting the All Whites at home.

His career at Blackburn Rovers has marked him as the most successful Kiwi player in the top English league, when the premiership is at or near the pinnacle of world sport.

No longer a showpiece of the English game, it is a melting pot of the best in international football, Barcelona and a few others excepted.

But while Nelsen operates in the game's top echelon, the rest of the All Whites are from very different places.

Somehow they had to be moulded into a unit, on and off the field. The task of driving the cohesion and tactics fell heavily with Nelsen.

He certainly had plenty of support, from Simon Elliott, Tim Brown and co, during the campaign.

But what Nelsen wanted, he got, is how this team's dynamics worked.

While coach Ricki Herbert can't be dismissed in this, communication is not his strong point and Nelsen also had vastly more experience in terms of high-level tactics and organisation.

Nelsen was sensational in the draw against Italy. Just as significantly, when New Zealand needed to rally and throw caution to the wind against Paraguay, his battle with illness was probably the unfortunate factor that held them back.

You could argue forever about whether New Zealand might have succeeded without Herbert, Mark Paston's brilliant goalkeeping, etc etc.

But there is no debate on the Nelsen factor - he was irreplaceable and the man chiefly responsible for the most unlikely sporting ride this country has experienced.

- NZ Herald

We would like to hear from you. Who do you think is a worthy New Zealander of the Year for 2010? Email us at newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz

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