If you ask a New Zealander to think of a footballer who has made the most impact for the country on the world stage, the first name that will usually spring to mind is that of Wynton Rufer.
Born in Wellington in 1962, Wynton Rufer is a former New Zealand international footballer, the first and one of only a handful to enjoy a successful playing career in Europe, and a player whose services to New Zealand football saw him named Oceania Player of the Century by the Oceania Football Confederation.
Rich footballing ties
The son of a Swiss father and New Zealand Maori mother, like many New Zealand footballers Rufer comes from a family with rich ties to the beautiful game. After rising through the ranks in local football clubs in New Zealand’s capital city, Rufer and his brother Shane were invited to trial at English football club Norwich City in 1981.
Both the striker - known for his no-nonsense style of play – and his midfielder brother impressed and were offered a contract to play for the Canaries, but a failed attempted to attain a work permit put paid to their British football hopes.
Despite the set-back Wynton went onto the play for a number of clubs in the Swiss Super League, cutting his footballing teeth with some of the rising stars of the world game, at clubs like FC Zurich, FC Aarau and Grasshopper Club Zurich.
German household name
But it was a move to German Bundesliga club Werder Bremen that put the New Zealander's name on the lips of football fans the world over. Scoring 59 goals in 174 appearances for the club, Wynton became a household name in Germany for the instrumental role his goal scoring prowess played in helping the team to win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1992.
During his six-year-stint at the club, Wynton's fast-play and determination also saw him help Werder to their third Bundesliga Championship, where he finished second for the most goals scored in the 1992-93 season.
But it wasn’t just in Europe that Wynton made his mark.
Wynton was just 17 when he made his debut for a New Zealand A side, and despite being a late-comer to the New Zealand squad proper for the 1982 World Cup qualification campaign, Wynton – aged just 18 – helped the side reach their first ever World Cup when he scored a late winner during their 2-1 play-off win over China.
Scoring hearts and minds
At the tender age of 19, Wynton was the youngest member of the New Zealand international football squad, and despite New Zealand losing all three of their qualification matches, the boldness, courage and conviction of Wynton and his fellow New Zealand teammates saw the World Cup campaign in Spain capture the hearts and minds of the New Zealand public, bringing forth a new generation of football fans.
After his European jaunts, Wynton returned to New Zealand to play in the country’s domestic league, becoming a player-coach for the likes of North Shore and Kingz. It was on his return to New Zealand that Wynton cemented his fate in New Zealand football folklore, founding a football coaching school, WYNRS - Wynton Rufer School of Excellence - which has produced current All Whites like Chris Wood, Marco Rojas and Stefan Marinovic, three players who have also enjoyed their own taste of European football.
More recently Wynton was named the manager of Papua New Guinea after he impressed during his time coaching the U19 squad during the 2014 OFC U-19 Championship.
FIFA U-20 World Cup ambassador
With so much passion for the game and an unwavering belief in New Zealand football, Wynton has also been made an ambassador for the FIFA U-20 World Cup taking place in New Zealand from 30 May – 20 June, 2015.
It was Wynton who brought the highly sought-after FIFA U-20 World Cup trophy to New Zealand shores in May 2014. Speaking from Waitangi – the birthplace of modern New Zealand – where the football legend brought the trophy to shore via a 30-paddler Māori waka (canoe), Wynton said:
"When I got into the waka, I really felt like I was representing my own whanau (family) Ngati Porou. There were a lot of emotions coming out - this is the FIFA U-20 World Cup Winner’s Trophy. It’s amazing," said Rufer.
"We really are privileged because FIFA can give the tournament to anyone and they have given it to us. It’s huge for New Zealand."
With the tournament just around the corner, it looks like the Rufer family’s rich footballing tapestry is about to grow with Wynton’s nephew Alex Rufer (son of his brother Shane) a real possibility to line-up for the New Zealand U-20 World Cup team.
About the FIFA U-20 World Cup:
Seven host cities across New Zealand will host some of the most talented rising stars of the world game at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, New Plymouth and Wellington in the North Island will host games, while Christchurch and Dunedin will represent the sport-loving South Island. The schedule sees four pool games played in two of the seven host cities daily - with plenty of double-header football action to whet the sporting appetite.
During the three-week tournament (30 May - 20 June 2015) New Zealand will play host to 24 international teams, with a total of 52 matches played.
Broadcast to more than 100 countries, with a global reach of around 170 million people, the FIFA U-20 World Cup will also help promote New Zealand to the world. Thousands of overseas football fans are expected to travel to the country in support of their team.