Football: Nelsen calls time on international game

Ryan Nelsen
Ryan Nelsen
It was the phone call New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert had been waiting for but, in reality, didn't really want to receive.

Early this afternoon, Ryan Nelsen confirmed to Herbert what the New Zealand football community feared, and announced he would be retiring from all football at the end of the month to take up the post as Toronto FC coach.

He will play his last game for Queens Park Rangers against English champions Manchester City on January 29 and join the MLS club for pre-season training on February 1.

It means he will miss the All Whites' final two World Cup qualifiers against New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands in March.

It had been hoped he might turn out one last time against New Caledonia and the most optimistic even wondered if he could suit up for November's intercontinental playoff against the fourth-best team from Central and North America for a place at next year's World Cup.

Sadly, it won't happen and Nelsen will be stuck on 49 international caps.

Appropriately, he played his last in his home town of Christchurch but he won't get the sendoff he deserves. Wynton Rufer is the best player this country has produced but Nelsen is the most influential.

The All Whites wouldn't have qualified for the 2010 World Cup without him - he was immense in the home-and-away playoff against Bahrain - and most certainly wouldn't have left South Africa undefeated in their three games.

"After a lot of consideration, I have decided to end my playing career with the All Whites," Nelsen said.

"I believe I leave the team in a good space with quality players able to carry on the recent success the All Whites have enjoyed. Every time I pulled on a New Zealand shirt with the fern on my chest, it was a very proud moment for me and I will miss it.

"When you're not enjoying the playing side as much as other aspects of football, you know it is time to move on. That time is now and I want to commit all my energies into my coaching career with Toronto FC."

The All Whites can still qualify for next year's World Cup in Brazil without Nelsen, but it will be much more difficult.

Teammates play with considerably more confidence with the big centre-back alongside them but there is at least good depth in his position through Winston Reid, Tommy Smith, Ben Sigmund and Andrew Durante, who is applying for a New Zealand passport so he can play for his adopted country.

It's not yet clear whether the 35-year-old might be open to a role with the All Whites in their likely playoff in November - they need a point against New Caledonia in their next match to win the Oceania qualifiers - as either an assistant coach or mentor but his influence cannot be overstated.

The legend might be growing but he delivered an impassioned speech on the eve of the second leg of the qualifier against Bahrain in 2009 that left his teammates virtually willing to run into a brick wall for him. The thing he has already emphasised about what he wants to see from his team is fighting for the jersey and never giving up.

"His contribution to New Zealand football has been significant as an inspirational leader in every respect," NZF chairman Frank Van Hattum said. "Without doubt he is one of our all-time greats.

"The fairytale would have been for the All Whites to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Brazil with Ryan at the helm, but this is the reality of professional football. These opportunities don't come around too often. It's an exciting chance for him to move into the next phase of his career, and that opportunity is now."

Most would have hoped it would have been at least 10 months later after another successful World Cup campaign.

- Michael Brown of APNZ


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