All-Whites great Ryan Nelsen took a look at his son Maxwell training in Christchurch on a wet, wintry night this week and reflected on how far New Zealand football has come.
When the 2010 All Whites World Cup captain made his breakthrough a generation ago with Christchurch United, he was “training at Domain Terrace” on council ground.
But Maxwell, 14 – who is attending a junior development program at his home in Washington, DC – was training on a state-of-the-art all-weather surface at Christchurch United Academy in Yaldhurst while visiting family in New Zealand.
Ryan Nelsen, who captained Blackburn Rovers and Queen’s Park Rangers in the English Premier League, said ‘clubs like Christchurch United across the country are developing children properly’, and that’s part of why he feels confident about the future of New Zealand football despite the disappointment. of the All Whites having failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup final in Qatar.
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Nelsen, 44, was in Doha in June to watch the heartbreaking 1-0 World Cup playoff loss to Costa Rica, where Chris Wood was disallowed a goal by VAR for an alleged foul by Matthew Garbett in the preparation.
Nelsen, who works for world governing body Fifa on advisory boards, was ‘gutted’ by the result and believed he dismissed the goal decision had revealed ‘a weakness in some of the VAR referees’ which treat decisions as “pretty black and white when it’s not, it’s grey.
“You have to have a smell or a feeling for the game where I think these analytical umpires don’t have that. They don’t have that game experience where there’s a sense of smell that it happens in the football and sometimes just playing.’
While the All Whites’ World Cup qualifying exit was “a huge disappointment for everyone”, Nelsen still believes that “everyone has seen the New Zealand teams of the future – teams that can play, compete, pass a ball, who are athletically good enough, technically good enough, and tactically good enough” to compete on the world stage.
He watched the All Whites game with a group of other famous former players, including 1990 World Cup winner Lothar Matthaus of Germany, Spain’s Fernando Hierro and ex-Socceroos superstar Tim Cahill, and all were impressed with the way Danny Hay’s New Zealanders played in a game where they managed 15 shots against Costa Rica’s four.
“I think that was the bright light of that game, you saw a glimpse of what the potential could be in four years 2026, when it’s probably a little bit easier path to qualification, right, and these young guys are now at very good clubs in Europe,” Nelsen said.
“New Zealand teams have probably relied in the past on being quite stubborn, strong and resilient teams. This team is a bit more exciting to watch, with the ability to play a bit more football and control games with the ball, and I think that’s pretty exciting.
Nelsen is eagerly awaiting the return of midfielders Ryan Thomas and Sarpreet Singh – who missed the game against Costa Rica through injury. “Ryan Thomas is a very big part of this group if he can just get in shape and get a run of games.”
He is also excited about the potential of young men like Marko Stamenic and Joe Bell – both playing in Denmark – and Matthew Garbett (Torino) and Liberato Cacace (Empoli) at Italian Serie A clubs and has been encouraged by positive results for the national under-17, under 20 and under 23 in recent years.
He says it is the result of development programs across the country and has enjoyed seeing the rise of Alex Greive from the Northern League from Auckland to St Mirren in the Scottish Premier League and onto the All Whites, saying it was similar ‘to when Ryan Thomas went hiking in Holland’ and then was signed by Dutch Eredivisie club PEC Zwolle.
Nelsen was captain of the All Whites when Chris Wood made his debut aged 17 in 2009 when the Hamilton teenager used to pick the skipper in training to test himself against an EPL defender .
He says Wood – now with EPL club Newcastle United after a successful career with Burnley – is a “fantastic role model for all the kids growing up in New Zealand”.
“For Woodsy to do what he’s been doing for four or five years, we may never see each other again.
“It’s so hard to be a striker who scores goals in the toughest league in the world. It’s very, very, very difficult and what he’s done is amazing,
“He showed that a New Zealander could do it, it’s an amazing feat for him and I hope we have others who can replicate it.”
Nelsen wonders if Wood’s exploits – including scoring 10 or more goals in four consecutive EPL seasons – weren’t appreciated enough because New Zealand sports fans were used to having a Kiwi in Premier League after Nelsen and Winston Reid established themselves at this level. .
Current All Whites manager Danny Hay has once anchored the defense with Nelsen, who is impressed with his former team-mate’s handling of the national team.
“I was lucky enough to be invited into the camp when I was in Doha and got to see him at work and the staff and the processes they go through. I was playing in terms of professionalism I think they are doing a great job Danny is a keen New Zealander and we haven’t had many in the upper management echelons other than probably Ricki [Herbert]. I think it’s good that we promote our own guys who know the All White shirt.
“I think he is doing a great job and the team has a good future if New Zealand football gives him the right support, staff and infrastructure around him.”
He also praised Hay’s “bravery in selecting young lads and giving them a chance”.
Nelsen is looking forward to Oceania securing automatic qualification for the World Cup in 2026 and jokes that he is not worried, unlike ‘nostalgics like you and historians’, that it might overshadow the achievements of the 1982 and 2010 World Cups. All Whites’ if a New Zealand team qualifies each time.
“It’s a global game and Oceania should be represented to some extent. Not just us, it gives everyone in Oceania the opportunity to think they have a chance.
“When you get to the World Cup [finals]you forget if you played one game or 100 games to get there.
“You can’t tell me that going to Mexico or Peru, home and away, is just for New Zealand. Costa Rica has not lost in 40 years in one of its stadiums. Then they come to New Zealand and we rolled out the red carpet for them.
Nelsen tells anyone in New Zealand who thinks the All Whites will automatically qualify, “no way. I’ve seen some things done in other parts of Oceania and they have some good players, and they’re going to foam at the mouth.
As for working with Fifa, Nelsen thinks it’s a “completely different organization than it was in the past” and that current president Gianni Infantino is “a huge football fan” who “loves the game so much and really changes the perception”. and the reputation of Fifa”.
Nelsen has also “done commercial work” for United States Soccer and oversees a player management company.
He has no desire to return to coaching after his 18-month stint as head coach of Major League Soccer club Toronto FC after completing his eight-year Premier League spell with QPR in 2013.
“Yes, there are because you like the game and watch [training] now you just love it. But then you come back to the reality of what it is and it’s not for me. This part is only 10% of the actual work, the rest is facing aggravation and complaints all the time.
“I have such admiration for many of these coaches who have been doing it for so long.”
Now he enjoys watching Maxwell pursue the family’s longstanding passion for family football. Ryan’s maternal grandfather Bob Smith was president of the New Zealand Football Association in the 1960s and three of Bob’s brothers – Vic, Gordon and Roger Smith – and Gordon’s son Brian played for New Zealand -Zealand.
Young Max is part of the MLS Next development program. “Like me, he started in front and then he went to midfield and he slowly progressed,” Ryan said. “He’s holding on, but I think straight away could be his place, that’s what the new coaches think.”
Born in the UK to a Kiwi father and an American mother (Monica), Maxwell “has three passports. I said to him, if you get decent enough, what are you going to do,” Ryan quips , who says the main thing is that he “loves it”.