There is often that one game that makes fans and coaches alike sit up and take notice of one’s great ability or potential. Cue – Michael Owen: 30 June 1998. There are games when a certain goal makes you an overnight superstar. Cue – Alessandro del Piero: 4 December 1994. Then, there are players who suddenly have shot up to the limelight thanks to a brilliant performance during an entire tournament or season. Cue – Ronaldinho: World Cup 2002. New Zealand’s football legend Wynton Rufer has the distinct honour of being a player who belongs to all 3 categories.
November 22nd, 1989 is likely to be registered in many football lovers’ minds for a riveting game between two great sides – Napoli and Werder Bremen. The quarter-final of the European League had drawn the two giants together and a look at the team sheets was enough to leave many waiting with bated-breath for the encounter.
Napoli were, without much doubt, the favourites to romp home in style, at least at the Stadio San Paolo. The stadium was revered for its fanatical and boisterous fans and with players like Diego Maradona, only the finest player to have ever played the game, Gianfranco Zola, Careca and de Napoli in the home side’s list; many expected the Azzuri to run away comfortable winners in the first leg of the third round. The Green-Whites too had their share of good players – and Wynton Rufer.
The match turned out to be a completely different affair though and Werder Bremen edged the thriller 3-2 thanks to a last gasp goal by Rufer. Like with so many around the world, Rufer cannot forget the game. Ask him about that one moment which he will remember forever and he is quick to tell you about the day in Naples, with so much detail and accuracy that you’d be left wondering if it happened just yesterday.
The former Werder Bremen recollected, quite animatedly, his game alongside some of the greats of the game and sending, perhaps the greatest team then, crashing down to earth.
Rufer has played in many countries and won many accolades, including the Oceania Player of the Century award. Not many would be complaining about having such a rich and successful career but Rufer’s biggest regret remains that he could not play in Italy. During his playing days Italy was the country to play at dominating in the European Championships and also in terms of star-cast compared to the other leagues.
“When I was in Switzerland, the big league to play in was Italy. Around 1983, there was Platini and Juventus, then later came AC Milan and it was a great place to go play your football. I had a fantastic offer from Lazio, Rome, but I instead chose Werder Bremen. I guess my biggest regret was having not played in Italy,” he said.
But it wasn’t as if his time at Werder turned out to be a sub-par one. He won six titles with the Die Werderaner and enjoyed an outstanding time in European Championships, scoring 2 goals every 3 matches.
“Things did go quite well at Werder Bremen though. We won the European Cup Winners’ Cup, we won the Bundesliga, the German Cup twice and every year, we played in Europe. I was the Champions League top-scorer in 1992, so it did turn out to be good. But it would’ve been good to be in Italy.
“I played 45 games in Europe and scored 30 goals. That was a very good record,” he proudly exclaims before adding, “but it would’ve been nice to play in Italy. They had the most fanatical supporters and the most unbelievable crowds. That’s okay, that’s life.”
Rufer’s disappointment in not getting to play in Italy is quite apparent and even if his six titles with Werder Bremen didn’t make him overcome the disappointment, the game against Napoli and the prize he got at the end would surely have.
“We played Napoli in the UEFA Cup quarter-final. I got Maradona’s shirt. I scored in both legs and we knocked them out,” he says, but that is only the beginning of a wonderful story about Rufer’s experience at the San Paolo.
He goes on: “The atmosphere in the San Naples stadium was just unbelievable. If you have seen the movie, The Gladiator, at the very end they walk into the Colosseum – for the final fight. They come up to the Colosseum and there are thousands of people cheering – it was similar to that. There were around 60,000 people and there was such a deafening cry of people and obviously you know most of them are against you and it is intimidating to say the least.
“Lot of the stadiums in Italy have the staircase under the ground and you walk right up to the field. It was the same at the Napoli stadium and I’m standing next to Careca, Alaemao, Carnevale and a young Gianfranco Zola. It was an unbelievable team of talent and you come up step-by-step to the field and streaks of blue and white came flying down on us. It was just incredible,” an excited Rufer said.
“I had such a heady feeling. Even now, as I’m telling you the story, the hair is tingling on my back. At that moment it was truly unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Despite such a strong backing for the home team, it was the Green-Whites who put their noses in front in the quarter-final. Neubarth and Riedle struck for Werder Bremen just minutes either side of half-time to give the visitors a stunning 2 away-goal advantage.
Napoli weren’t champions of Italy for nothing. Maradona weaved his magic and soon the Azzuri were back on level pegging. It was now that relatively little-known Wynton Rufer, who had moved to Werder only a couple of months ago, chose to leave his mark. With the game in the balance at 2-2 and both teams struggling hard for the edge, Rufer put Werder on the brink of a what-seemed-highly-unlikely upset with a goal in injury time.
That proved to be decisive as Werder went on the hammer Napoli 5-1 in the return leg and leave the Napoli greats and their faithfuls on their knees.
Rufer said that before the match his had thought they were going to be at the receiving end of a thumping. He also added that the injury time goal in the first leg transformed him into a superstar over-night.
“We had thought we were gonna get hammered. I didn’t think we had a chance. But unbelievably we scored 2 and then I got the winning goal. That one game, that one goal made me world famous,” he recollected.
“It was all the more amazing because Maradona was playing like he was a god at Napoli and he was supported like crazy. The year we knocked them out, they went on to win the Scudetto for the 2nd time. So, they were a very good team. They were at their peak and so was Maradona. There was the best player in the world and the best team in the world; and we knocked them out. It was amazing.”
A last-gasp goal to oust one of the best teams in the world would be enough to make anyone cry out in joy, but Rufer’s day only got better.
“I scored an injury time goal and got his (Maradona’s) shirt at the end to boot. That was the perfect icing on the cake. Even if someone offers me a 100 thousand dollars for that shirt, I wouldn’t give it away,” he exclaims.
Rufer’s excitement and passion for what he experienced that day is quite infectious and leaves one longing to be a part of something similar to what the New Zealander was a part of. The legendary footballer could not have put it in a better way himself when he said “If I had to die at that very moment ( standing alongside Maradona, Zola, Careca, Alaemao, Carnevale and having 60,000 boisterous fans chanting ), I would have died a very happy man.”Published 24 Apr 2013, 22:14 IST