Michael Fitzgerald is one of the best Kiwi defenders on the world stage — but currently has more chance of turning out for Japan than New Zealand.

Fitzgerald's situation would make a great pub quiz question: who is a player the All Whites could really need but just can't have?

Fitzgerald is thriving in the J-League as his career goes from strength to strength. But as long as he stays in the Asian nation, he will be unavailable for the All Whites because he took up Japanese citizenship last year in order to be classified as a non-import player.

The match against South Africa highlighted New Zealand's lack of defensive depth. The team's attacking potential is unquestioned but there has been less certainty at the back since Ryan Nelsen retired.


Winston Reid is often not available and Tommy Smith has excluded himself for the next 12 months. Andrew Durante has yet to fully assert himself at international level and younger players such as Michael Boxall and Storm Roux still have much to prove.

Fitzgerald could be a solution. Capable of playing central defence or right back, the 25-year-old has developed considerably after a long apprenticeship in Japan.

"He would be great for our team," says All Whites midfielder Michael McGlinchey. "He is going really well in a really good league."

Fitzgerald has taken an unusual path for a New Zealand footballer, avoiding the typical British, American or A-League route.

He signed for Albirex Niigata in 2008 but took a long time to establish himself. He had extended loan spells in the lower leagues with three clubs until returning to Albirex in August last year. After seasons of toil, he's now a starting player in the J-League, probably the strongest domestic competition in Asia.

"Nothing good comes easy — that's what Mum and Dad told me all these years," says Fitzgerald. "It's been a long road, with good times and bad. After I signed as a professional, it was just a waiting game until my chance came. I'm not going to let it go [or] forget how hard it was to get here."

15 Aug, 2014 5:45am
2 minutes to read

It can't be underestimated what Fitzgerald has achieved. Japan is a tough environment. There are thousands of aspiring players and huge language and cultural barriers to overcome. McGlinchey was one who struggled during his brief spell in Japan.

"Everything at training had to go through the translator," says McGlinchey. "If a player wants to say something, he has to shout to the translator. He shouts back to me, I shout back to the translator, so it is very difficult to communicate."

McGlinchey would stand at the back while the coach explained passing drills, hoping he could "watch and get it right". He also took a while to adjust to calling senior players "san".

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald is thriving. He marked 2010 World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan earlier this season.

"That was a dream come true. It was amazing the way he could shoot from anywhere, off both feet."

Fitzgerald made three appearances for the All Whites in 2011. He had a solid debut against China but struggled in a well beaten team against Mexico and seemed to fall off former coach Ricki Herbert's radar.

In Japan, Fitzgerald is classed as a local, meaning he doesn't take one of the import spots, but that classification would cease if he played for New Zealand. He hasn't ruled out the possibility of one day being available for the All Whites again.

"In the future, if I went overseas and had a chance to play for New Zealand, I would love to."