The 22-year-old fullback ma' />
Michael Fitzgerald defied his Japanese club side by playing for the All Whites in yesterday's friendly against China.
The 22-year-old fullback made his international debut in the 1-1 draw with China yesterday, coming on as a late substitute, but it could cost him his J-League career. Fitzgerald is into his fourth year with J-League outfit Albirex Niigata but is yet to make his first-team debut.
The fact he is a foreigner counts against him, given only three are allowed to play at one time. In Niigata's case they are taken by Brazilians. Niigata have encouraged him to apply for Japanese residency so he could play as a local, but that might now be out of the question.
"They did not want him to play for New Zealand," says Wynton Rufer, who tutored Fitzgerald through his Wynrs academy. "They were not happy. They initially told him not to accept it [the call-up to the All Whites], which was very sad. They are worried he won't get the visa now.
"They don't want him to count as a foreigner. If he was a local, he could get a contract of US$150,000 but the foreign players are on $500,000 and he won't get one of those because they go to Brazilians. If you're there for five years, you can get residency. Playing for New Zealand puts that in jeopardy.
"But I encouraged him and told him, 'you've got to go for it'. He's a New Zealander. He's from Mt Roskill, his mum is Samoan. You can't say no to that. We are on an all-time high and I know Ricki [Herbert] will be happy with what he sees. The boy is quality."
It was on Rufer's recommendation that Herbert selected Fitzgerald in the first place. Like most people in this country, Herbert hadn't seen the youngster play. He left New Zealand at 16 to take up a football scholarship with one of Tokyo's top high schools and was soon signed by Niigata. Incredibly, his selection for the All Whites was his first stint with any New Zealand team at any level.
Fitzgerald is about to begin his second season on loan to third division side Zweigen Kanazawa but when that starts is not yet clear. The J-League recently announced the competition will now start on April 23 after a five-week delay caused by the earthquake and tsunami but it's not certain whether other leagues will begin then, too.
It's also not clear what sort of response Fitzgerald will get from Niigata when he returns to Japan.
"He's got a European passport," Rufer says. "Worst-case scenario, he has to leave and play in Europe. Bad luck. He doesn't really want to but it's not every day you get an offer to play for the national team."
Fitzgerald replaced Jeremy Brockie in the 78th minute yesterday, which wasn't enough time to gauge his potential, but looked assured in the limited time he had.
Rufer describes him as a "typical Japanese" player with good technical ability and good passing range. At 1.86cm and 70kg, he's slight, but is said to have the ability to get forward. Fullback looks his best fit in a New Zealand side even though he can play anywhere across the back or as a holding midfielder.
"It was a surprise," Fitzgerald admits of his All Whites call-up, "but a good surprise. I haven't really been in that much contact [with New Zealand Football] since I've been in Japan.
"I believe I can make it in the game. The chance to play for New Zealand comes with a lot of pressure but all I can do is my best."
Rufer's Wynrs programme is playing an increasingly significant role in New Zealand football. Three graduates were in the All Whites squad to face China - Fitzgerald, Chris Wood and Marco Rojas - the most ever. Three more are in the Football Ferns, five in the boys' under-17s presently on tour in Qatar, eight in the last under-17s cycle and a significant number in the under-20s squad preparing for next month's World Cup qualifiers.
Rufer has not always been flavour of the month with the local footballing community but it's hard to argue with what he's producing.