Facing a Nelsen-less All Whites
All Whites defender, and presumably former captain, Ryan Nelsen, has just announced that he will become the new head coach of Toronto FC in the MLS (Major League Soccer).
It will likely mark the end of his international career for New Zealand which dates back to 1999. I have no doubts of his coaching abilities as he has spent the majority of his professional career as a leader on the field.
Nelsen's time spent wearing the white shirt for his country was when I became familiar with him the most.
I will never forget the role he played in the 2002 Oceania Nations Cup final at Ericsson Stadium (now Mt Smart Stadium) where he scored the sole goal in New Zealand's 1-0 over Australia.
His goal allowed the All Whites to participate in the 2003 Confederations Cup. Fast-forward several years and Nelsen was once again influential in guiding his country to victory in the 2008 OFC Nations Cup.
That cemented New Zealand's spot in the 2009 Confederations Cup in the process, which Nelsen unfortunately did not participate in.
One of the defining moments of Nelsen's career came when he leaded his side to victory over Bahrain in a two-legged World Cup qualifying playoff in October-November 2009, enabling the All Whites to qualify for their first world cup since 1982.
The qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa offered Nelsen, and his countrymen, an opportunity to impress on the world stage against some of the heavyweights of international football.
They did everything but embarrass themselves. A stoppage time equaliser against Slovakia in their first match was followed by a 1-1 draw against defending champions Italy.
In this memorable game, Nelsen played arguably his best, and arguably most important, role in an All Whites shirt, teaming up extremely well with his fellow defenders and goal-keeper Mark Paston in stifling the continuous Italian attack.
Their third and final game was against the impressive Paraguay, but this match also finished in a draw, this time 0-0.
Nelsen was again a key figure in a staunch New Zealand defence.
Unfortunately, their three draws saw them harshly bundled out of the competition in the group stage, with three points, undefeated.
But without doubt, Nelsen and his troops did the country proud by not losing a game when the odds were completely against them.
Back to the present, the All Whites are currently at the final stages of completing the Oceania phase of qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
They sit top of the group on 12 points, three clear of New Caledonia in second place.
New Zealand host New Caledonia in their penultimate game of the competition, and assuming they win, will progress to the two-match, intercontinental playoff against the fourth-ranked CONCACAF team in November 2013.
That team will be confirmed in mid-October at the end of CONCACAF's fourth qualification phase, and based on current rankings would likely be either Jamaica, Panama, Costa Rica, or Honduras.
Now begs the question: Can the All Whites qualify for the next world cup without Ryan Nelsen? It will be hard, but definitely possible.
Statistics do show that the All Whites have a better winning percentage when Nelsen is lining up in central defence but if we look at the current crop of defenders there are some very promising signs.
Young defending duo Winston Reid and Tommy Smith - the later taking the captaincy of late when Nelsen has been unavailable - play in the Premier League and Championship (second tier English league) respectively, and Reid especially has been very impressive for West Ham this season.
Tony Lochead, who plays under Ricki Herbert for the Wellington Phoenix, has been a loyal servant for the national side over the years, but I have my doubts as to whether his best days are behind him.
Twenty-three-year-old Ian Hogg, who scored in an impressive debut for the All Whites against El Salvador in May 2012, has just signed for the Phoenix and will rival Lochead for the same position.
Let's not forget the hard-nosed Ben Sigmund who also plays for the Phoenix as a defender.
You could argue that the fate of the All Whites road to the world cup rests partly in the hands of Phoenix captain and defender Andrew Durante.
Although Durante was born in Australia, the closest he has got to playing for the Socceroos was being selected in a 2010 squad, and since he has not actually represented Australia on the pitch at the highest level, he will likely become eligible to play for New Zealand in a few months after living in the country for the required five years.
Durante has previously said that he would "never say no" to playing for his adopted country, but gave the impression that, if picked for Australia, he would rather play for his country of birth.
However, Durante has recently said that he feels at home in New Zealand and that, regarding playing for the All Whites, it "feels right."
Even if the hole left by Nelsen's departure is too big to fill up, the options up front and in midfield are plentiful.
Marco Rojas is going from strength to strength for the Melbourne Victory in the goal-scoring and assists categories.
Jeremy Brockie's move to the Phoenix has worked wonders and he is in the running to become top scorer for the 2012/2013 season.
Michael McGlinchey's influence at the Central Coast Mariners has helped them to top of the A-League ladder.
Even Shane Smeltz has found some much needed goal scoring form with an impressive double in a 2-2 draw for Perth Glory against Sydney FC last week.
In Europe, Kosta Barbarouses' form for the Brisbane Roar and Russian side Alania Vladikavkaz saw him pick up a loan deal with high-profile Greek club Panathinaikos, and Chris Wood has struck a recent purple patch with Milwall and Leicester City.
Essentially, I believe that the All Whites might have a better team than they did back in 2009/2010.
To conclude, regardless of how well this All Whites team performs in the near future, Ryan Nelsen's 49 appearances for his country, his leadership, and defensive attributes that were so crucial at the previous world cup and several qualification tournaments over the past 14 years, will probably never be replicated.
A man of enormous stature, a proud New Zealander who stopped countless attacks over the years at all levels of football, Ryan Nelsen, I salute you - a true legend of New Zealand sport. You will be missed.
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