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 go overseas.
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
From the 1980s a handful of New Zealanders found success in other European leagues, most notably Wynton Rufer in Switzerland and Germany and Ivan Vicelich in the Netherlands. In 2023, Liberato Cacace was playing in Italy for Serie A team Empoli, Sarpreet Singh in Germany for Jahn Regensburg in the second division of the Bundesliga, and Matthew Garbett and Ryan Thomas for second-tier teams in the Netherlands. Another 20 players were spread across Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Italy and Portugal. Two New Zealanders were playing Major League Soccer in the United States: Bill Tuiloma (Charlotte) and Michael Boxall (Minnesota United).
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. After retiring as a player he returned to Major League Soccer as coach of Toronto FC in 2013–14.
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, Leicester City, Burnley, Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest).
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 is 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 FIFA World Cup for the first time.
During his time with German club 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 final of the 1992 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.
In 1999 Rufer was voted Oceania Footballer of the Century and returned home to lead the Auckland-based Football Kingz club in the Australian National Soccer League as player-coach.
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 franchise taking part in 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 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 and a total of eight by 2022–23.
The rise in professional football teams and competitions locally and internationally increased opportunities for careers in coaching.
Ricki Herbert is one of New Zealand’s most high-profile coaches. After a successful playing career he began coaching Auckland club teams. Herbert coached the New Zealand team at the 2000 Olympics and the under-17 team in 2003. He was All Whites coach from 2005 to 2013, combining this role with head coach of the Wellington Phoenix from 2007. He has subsequently coached in the Indian Super League and Papua New Guinea, and been head coach of the Maldives.