For many years football in New Zealand was an amateur, or at best semi-professional, sport. As a result most of New Zealand’s top footballers keen to make a living from playing were forced to play abroad.
Playing in Britain
Given Britain’s historic ties with New Zealand and its status as the home of football, it was the ultimate destination for many aspiring Kiwi pros.
Goalkeeper Peter Whiting became something of a trailblazer for New Zealand football in 1967. After winning the Chatham Cup with Wellington club Miramar Rangers, he made the jump to English football with second division side Charlton Athletic.
In 1995 Lee Norfolk became the first New Zealander to play in England’s top division when he appeared for Ipswich Town in the Premier League. He was followed by Danny Hay at Leeds United in 2000.
Europe and the US
Since the 1980s a handful of New Zealanders have found success in other European leagues, most notably Wynton Rufer in Switzerland and Germany and Ivan Vicelich in the Netherlands.
The US college system has provided another pathway for Kiwi footballers. All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen graduated from Greensboro College to the American Major League Soccer club DC United before making what many saw as the ultimate move to the English Premier League. Joining Blackburn in 2005 Nelsen played 172 games for the Lancashire side and became club captain before moving to fellow Premier League clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Queen’s Park Rangers.
Since 2005 three other New Zealanders have played in England’s top league: Simon Elliott (Fulham), who also came through the US college system, Winston Reid (West Ham United) and Chris Wood (West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City).
Wynton Rufer is acknowledged as New Zealand’s greatest footballer. His record of 224 goals in more than 500 club matches in New Zealand and overseas was seen as unlikely to be matched by any other New Zealander.
Although he played only 23 times for his country he was remembered for scoring what proved to be the winner in the play-off against China in 1982, which saw New Zealand qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
During his time with German side Werder Bremen, Rufer established himself as one of the Bundesliga’s most feared strikers. In addition to winning a German league title and two German Cups, he scored in Bremen’s victory in the 1992 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final.
In 1999 he was voted Oceania Footballer of the Century and returned home to lead the Auckland-based Football Kingz club as player-manager in the Australian National Soccer League.
The Football Kingz represented New Zealand football’s first foray into an Australian national club competition. It also provided local talent with a career path closer to home. In 2004 the Football Kingz were restructured into the New Zealand Knights as a new franchise for Australia's new fully professional A-League.
The Knights performed dismally on and off the field before being replaced by Wellington Phoenix in 2007. Despite some financial difficulties in 2011 the Phoenix achieved a degree of on-field success in the competition with three play-off appearances in its first five seasons.