Nelsen vows: 'This means everything'
All Whites skipper Ryan Nelsen has a shot tomorrow at fulfilling a family World Cup dream.
Stuff.co.nz will have full rolling coverage of the All Whites v Bahrain qualifier on Sunday morning, including interviews and reports by reporter Tony Smith at the match.
The Blackburn Rovers star has beaten a back injury to lead the All Whites against Bahrain in the same Middle East zone where New Zealand took their first World Cup baby steps in 1969.
Nelsen's grandfather, Bob Smith, was chairman of the New Zealand Football Association when it entered the wider international arena in the mid-1960s.
Smith was at the helm when the national team undertook an ambitious world tour in 1964, aimed at boosting New Zealand's claim for a place in a World Cup qualifying group.
Sadly, Bob Smith died in 1967 – two years before New Zealand played its first World Cup games in Israel, and 10 years before his daughter Christine's son, Ryan Nelsen, was born. But the Smiths can lay claim to being the First Family of New Zealand football.
Four of Bob's brothers – Vic, Gordon, Jack and Roger Smith – represented New Zealand. Bob was believed to be the best of the brood and played in a Chatham Cup final, but a war wound cut short his playing career, hence his shift to coaching and administration.
But Gordon's son, Brian, followed his father and uncles as a national rep in the 1960s.
Ryan Nelsen is the family's third generation All White and he is conscious of the family legacy.
"It's hugely important to me, actually, all the more so since I've had my own son. I've started taking a bit more notice of things like that.
"When you hear the talk of my granddad and his brothers and what they did in football back then, it's pretty cool. In a way, I'm mirroring what they did.
"Hopefully they will be looking down and have a quiet word with the Big Cheese about giving us a bit of good luck against Bahrain."
Nelsen has conquered the pain barrier to play in Manama. He jarred his back in a fall against Aston Villa a fortnight ago. "I couldn't even bend over and touch my toes on the Sunday."
A week ago he failed a fitness test before Blackburn's match against Arsenal. His back was so sore he couldn't walk around the pitch.
Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce wanted Nelsen to miss the Manama match, but his skipper would not be stopped.
Still, Nelsen arrived at the All Whites' training camp "massively worried" he might not make the deadline for Bahrain. "But they gave me some pretty good hard drugs and I've been taking those for the past few days," he quipped. "And the more you get going, it loosens up; the physios and doctors with the New Zealand team are very good."
Nelsen says qualifying for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1982 would be the "icing on the cake" of an eventful career.
He knows, realistically, that this is his shot at World Cup glory. By the time the 2014 tournament rolls around, he'll be 36. He will, more than likely, have hung up his boots.
"I've got two more years at Blackburn after this season and I thought that would be about it [when he signed the five-year deal]."
He's still of the same mind but said: "You never know".
"I would love to be able to give something back to New Zealand in some way; it could be in coaching or in some other way."
Nelsen says the cup challenge is "massive", as taxing as an away match against a top-tier premier league club.
"There's a different edge to this game. Premier league is constant; it's week in, week out. You generally know your opposition, the stadiums you play in and the surroundings. It's like your job, but this is a one-off sort of thing. You can't go out next week and get the three points back. This means everything."