OPINION: All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen knows what it takes to battle to the top. From humble beginnings at Christchurch club Cashmere Wanderers, he has progressed via other Canterbury sides, the United States college soccer programme and North America's Major League Soccer to cement a place in the planet's toughest football competition.
Nelsen's signing to English premiership club Blackburn Rovers in 2005, a team he captained till moving to Tottenham last year, made him one of only a handful of New Zealanders to reach the pinnacle of world football.
Along the way, he has captained the national side in one World Cup and two Olympics. He has remained a loyal servant to New Zealand football, regularly – although not always as often as fans would like – appearing in matches in far-flung corners of the South Pacific, a world away from the glamour, crowds and prestige of the premiership.
Now, Nelsen has accepted a new challenge as head coach of struggling Canadian MLS side Toronto.
At this point, it is unclear what the appointment means for his immediate playing future and whether he will be available for the All Whites' two World Cup qualifiers in March. He hopes to be released early from his present premiership side, London's Queens Park Rangers, where he is contracted till June 30. An immediate release would see him go to Toronto straight away, although his key role in QPR's campaign to avoid relegation could see him required to stay till the league ends in May.
What is certain is that he will not be available for the playoff against the fourth placed team in the North, Central American and Carribean zone in November should the All Whites, as expected, win the Oceania qualifying round. Those matches are likely to be much tougher than the playoffs New Zealand had to negotiate against Bahrain to make the last World Cup.
The looming end to Nelsen's playing career will be a huge blow to the national side. He has been a solid presence in the defensive lineup, and an inspirational leader. He is widely acknowledged to have taken a leading role in the 2010 World Cup campaign, and he has been a sterling mentor of players coming through the ranks.
However, nobody can begrudge the choice he has made. At 35, he is nearing the end of his playing days anyway, and he cannot be criticised for looking to his future. Clearly, the Toronto offer was too good to ignore.
His appointment has raised eyebrows in Toronto, where his "zero coaching qualifications", as one commentator put it, has been seized upon as a further sign of the struggling club's woes.
Much of the chagrin is no doubt to do with the side's lack of results in recent seasons. The club has not made the playoffs for six years and finished rock bottom in 2012. Nelsen will be the eighth head coach in seven years.
However, despite his lack of formal coaching qualifications, there is no reason to suggest he cannot make a decent fist of his new job. He has been hailed for his work ethic, tactical nous and deep understanding of the game. Most importantly, he knows what it takes to succeed.
We wish him well.
- © Fairfax NZ News