Wynton Rufer is a retired New Zealand international footballer, most famously known for his stints at FC Zurich and Werder Bremen. In an interview, he talked about his experiences in Europe, the growth of football in his country, and his reaction over being chosen as Oceania Player of the Century.
You are one of the very few from the region (Oceania) to have made it big in Europe? How was your footballing journey as a youngster?
I didn’t really find it tough as a youngster. I was always very focussed about making it to the top and becoming professional as soon as possible. I started off at Norwich City in England, and then moved to Zurich in Switzerland and then got the big break in Germany at Werder Bremen. It came quite easily as a youngster because I’ve always strived on being a top footballer. I was very single-minded, like a typical striker I guess. I had to ruthless, a little self-centred and extremely focussed. You have to be that way to get to your goal.
Did you find it tough to progress as a footballer because of being in a non-footballing country?
No, not really. It was all part of my development. It was very hard to try and succeed and a large part of it came down to being mentally strong and being able to succeed and that is where I put my focus.
In England, they make fun of your accent. In Switzerland, they make fun of the way you speak your German. The you go to Germany, and it the same there. It’s in all sport. Like in cricket, they try to sledge and then hammer you. They try to exploit your weakness.
It the same in football as well, you have to be extremely tough mentally.
Have you always wanted to be a footballer?
Yes, I have always wanted to be a footballer. There was rugby and cricket in the country as well, but I always focussed on football.
How tough was it when you first made the switch to Zurich? How did you manage with the different footballing culture?
It again was thanks to my single-mindedness to succeed. I was strong-willed about that and success followed. What also helped was that I scored goals wherever I went. That was my job as a striker. And as long as I delivered, it made my job easier. That built my confidence and helped me.
How was the reaction back home when you clinched a move to a big-club like Werder Bremen?
Soccer wasn’t very well known in NZ and they didn’t really make a very big deal about it. At the time, I was quite happy with that, because in Germany I was a big star and going back to NZ I was able to get back to some peace and quiet.
The sad thing about it was that they failed to use that and help develop the game. Perhaps, they didn’t know to. It was a bit of shame, maybe it could’ve helped NZ in a big way.
Was it personally disappointing that you could not get too many caps for the national side because of your stints with clubs in Zurich?
Well, yeah! But at the end of the day, I had a contract and the club was paying me to be where I was. I was a little disappointed (with not getting more caps for the national team) but I can’t complain too much about it. I was under contract and had to honour it when they needed me.
How was it to receive the Oceania Player of the Century award?
In the list of the top 20, there was only 1 New Zealander – and it was me at the top. That was quite cool. There were some big names in the list, the likes of Christian Karembu and Robert Slater among others, and it was an honour being alongside them, but to know that I beat them all was quite cool.
One player from this era who has really impressed you?
I think the answer is quite obvious. Lionel Messi. I think he’s on a different plane altogether. It obviously helps that he’s playing for one of the best teams ever. The way Barcelona play is truly unbelievable and to have the best player in the world on your side make it a brilliant combination.