Captain Kiwi

Ryan Nelsen leads New Zealand into the World Cup.

May/June 2010

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Captain Kiwi

Photo: Lee Smith/Action Images

"CRISIS," blared the front page of the February 23 New Zealand Herald. For the growing number of soccer diehards in the country, this news outweighed any mere financial meltdown: New Zealand national team captain Ryan Nelsen had injured his knee, perhaps seriously enough to miss the World Cup in South Africa in June.

A scan the day after the injury revealed that Nelsen, a former Stanford soccer captain, had suffered a minor strain and would return to action shortly. The episode underscored the central defender's stature in rugby- and cricket-loving New Zealand, which has gone crazy for soccer—known as football outside the United States—since the Kiwis overcame Bahrain last November to qualify for their first World Cupin 28 years. "They're still saying now that it was one of the greatest games in any sport ever played in New Zealand," Nelsen, '01, said months later.

The press also says that the 32-year-old is the team's most talented player. As the Herald headline suggests, New Zealand needs its linchpin at his decisive best if the heavy underdog, ranked 80th in the world, is to win a World Cup game for the first time. (Midfielder Simon Elliott, '99, also plays for the New Zealand squad.)

Nelsen re-enacted boyhood daydreams last year, intercepting passes and blocking shot after shot as he marshaled New Zealand's defense to a pair of shutouts in the two-match playoff against Bahrain. When the final whistle ended the second game, a 1-0 Kiwi victory, New Zealand had clinched a place in a World Cup for only the second time. "When you grow up playing football, you dream of situations like that," Nelsen said. "But they're like Robin Hood—they're fictional things you pretend. It was the greatest, surreal kind of feeling I've ever experienced in sport."

Nelsen could have played out his sporting fantasies in another venue. He played for New Zealand's youth national cricket team, but he found soccer more enjoyable. Soccer also opened a path to the American university system. Bobby Clark, men's soccer coach at Stanford from 1996 to 2000, knew Nelsen from his time running New Zealand's junior national team in the mid-'90s. "He brought me over, really," Nelsen says, though the journey wasn't simple.

After Clark's son Jamie transferred to Stanford from the University of North Carolina in 1996, the coach recommended Nelsen to the Tar Heels as a replacement. But there were issues matching Nelsen's foreign coursework with UNC's requirements, so he attended Greensboro College, also in North Carolina, with a promise from Clark in hand. "I said to him, go two years, do well academically, and we'll try to take you to Stanford after your sophomore year," the coach remembers. "And that's what he did."

A political science major, Nelsen excelled in two All-America seasons as a defensive midfielder at Stanford, scoring eight career goals and winning Pacific-10 Conference Player of the Year as a senior. A month after Nelsen's last college game, D.C. United picked him fourth in Major League Soccer's 2001 draft. In four years in Washington, Nelsen won an MLS title before moving to the Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, where he was an instant hit. The Rovers staff gushed about him from the start and then put their money where their mouth was. After a 10-day tryout, the club signed him to an 18-month contract in January 2005. Just five months later, Blackburn extended the end of Nelsen's deal to 2008. And two years after the first extension, the Rovers tacked a pay raise and another four years onto the contract, securing Nelsen's services through the 2011-12 season.

It is not hard to tell what Blackburn saw in Nelsen. He's a strong tackler who regularly outleaps taller players in aerial battles for headers. Nelsen is also equally comfortable with the ball on his left foot or his natural right. But of all his skills, it is Nelsen's leadership that really catches the eye when he puts on his cleats. For Stanford, "he was almost an extension of the coaching staff on the field," according to Bobby Clark, who is now the men's soccer coach at Notre Dame. "Once the game starts for Ryan, he's going to make sure everyone else plays well because he wants to win. He does it in a positive manner so people don't take offense—he's not one of those captains who belittle people. But he leaves no one in any doubt of what he wants done."

Nelsen has stamped his authority, quickly, on each team he has played for since college. One year after he transferred to Stanford, he became a Cardinal captain. D.C. United handed him its team captaincy less than three seasons into his professional career. And at Blackburn Nelsen started wearing the captain's armband in 2007, merely two years after he signed with the team.

"I do what I do whether I have the armband or not," Nelsen says. "Once you have to start trying to be a captain, you're not really being one." That confidence will be indispensable for the Kiwis in South Africa. In past tournaments, raw New Zealand teams have folded under pressure from favored opponents. The squad is more seasoned now, but Nelsen is still one of the only players who regularly battles the world's best with his club in England. "A lot of players in the squad won't have had that experience," Clark says, "and he'll hold them together."

New Zealand's World Cup opener comes against Slovakia on June 15 in Rustenburg. The objectives for the tourney are small, and realistic. New Zealand lost all three matches at its first World Cup in 1982, so a tie would be admirable. A victory would be even better. It's hard, though, for an athlete to keep his eyes off the loftier goals. "In a perfect world," Nelsen says, "we can get out of our group" and advance deeper into the tournament.

In a country of only 4 million, just making the World Cup, much less captaining a team there, might be enough for some. Nelsen is not one of them. "I'll look back and think, 'Yeah, I'm proud of that moment,'" he says, but as that moment unfolds, more pressing things will occupy Nelsen's mind.

"All I'll care about is winning," he says.

SCOTT BLAND, '10, is an intern at Stanford.

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