Wynton Rufer: the Kiwi who became a European goalscoring hero

Wynton Rufer: the Kiwi who became a European goalscoring hero

What do Andriy Shevchenko, Ruud van Nistelrooy and George Weah have in common? As well as being some of the greatest names in modern football, each has been awarded the honour of Champions League top scorer, their names etched into footballing history by way of their expert marksmanship. 

In 1994, a 31-year-old former Norwich City reserve would join Romário and Jari Litmanen in the history books. Wynton Rufer had scored eight clinical goals to top the Champions League goalscoring charts alongside Ronald Koeman, but despite being the greatest footballer New Zealand had ever produced, hardly anybody knew his name. 

Wynton Rufer was born in Wellington in December 1962, the son of a Swiss father and Maori mother. Arthur had met his wife, Anne, after emigrating to New Zealand five years earlier, and together they had three children, each of whom inherited their father’s love of sports. Donna was a talented squash player, but the main sport in the Rufer household would always be football. Wynton, the youngest of the brood, would be shoved in goal as his brother and father took potshots against him in the backyard. 

Despite being a goalkeeper until he was 13, there was only one legend that the young Rufer aspired to. Like millions of others, he had been transfixed by Pelé’s all-conquering Brazil side of the 1970s, and had adorned his bedroom walls with a poster of the Santos forward. Inevitably, the young Maori grew up trying to emulate the magical Brazilian, and by his ninth birthday, he was able to perform 500 kick-ups.  Naturally he became a forward for his school team, sewing his name into his Rongetai College sports jacket as he attempted to emulate his Samba idol’s array of flicks and tricks. 

Rufer’s exuberant talent wouldn’t go unnoticed. After impressing for amateur sides Wellington United and Miramar Rangers, he was offered a trial alongside his brother Shane for Norwich City in England. He immediately started scoring in East Anglia, his skilful performances for the reserves resulting in the offer of a professional contract in 1981. Unfortunately, work permit rules scuppered any hopes of a permanent deal, the Canaries’ wings clipped by bureaucratic red tape. The brothers departed for FC Zürich in the May 1982, hoping to make a name for themselves in their father’s homeland. 

By that time, the younger Rufer had already gone some way to achieving notoriety. New Zealand were in the muck and bullets of the qualifying campaign for the 1982 World Cup when head coach John Adshead called upon the 18-year-old for decisive qualifiers against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Rufer scored thrice in his first two appearances for his country, quelling the grumbles of the largely amateur All Whites who had initially viewed his inclusion with suspicion. The results meant that New Zealand and China were level on points with an equal goal difference, so a decisive playoff was convened in neutral Singapore for the 10 January 1982.

Over 60,000 people crammed into the National Stadium on a sweltering evening to watch two of football’s minnows fight for the 24th and final World Cup spot. After Steve Woodin had opened the scoring, Rufer latched on to a long ball from goalkeeper Richard Wilson, evading desperate Chinese challenges to scorch an effort into the top corner. The All Whites, after travelling 90,000 kilometres with a paper-thin squad, had just gained their first-ever qualification for the World Cup. The young Rufer, who just months before had been an anonymous reserve for a regional club in England, was suddenly a star. 

Not much was expected of New Zealand at the 1982 World Cup, but a difficult challenge was made impossible after they were drawn into the ‘Group of Death’ alongside Brazil, Scotland and the Soviet Union. For Rufer personally, the game against the South Americans offered a chance to meet one of his all-time heroes. By the time his country lined-up for the game in Seville on the 23 June, they had already conceded right goals and were on their way home. 

Before the game, Rufer made his way onto the field, taking pictures and waving to his family and friends in the crowd. Little did he know that, at the time, Pelé was making his way through the New Zealand dressing room introducing himself to the starstruck players. Further salt was rubbed into Rufer’s wounds when, another 4-0 drubbing later, New Zealand were dumped out of the tournament. By then, however, New Zealand’s nimble number 7 was focusing on delivering for Zürich in the Swiss league. 

Der Stadtclub were 20 years into a golden period in their history, having won seven league titles and five domestic cups prior to the Rufer brothers’ arrival. Shane would depart for Lugano after just one season, but his younger brother became a mainstay of the Zürich attack, scoring nine goals to help his new club retain European football and being touted in Swiss media as a potential star. 

Zürich were, however, on a downward curve, and as they struggled to cling to on to their domestic supremacy, Rufer often found the allure of Zürich’s nightlife too tempting to resist. Despite his obvious talent, continued disputes over his desire to appear for the New Zealand national team meant that he was placed on the transfer list in 1986. 

Forty-three goals in 100 appearances were enough to convince FC Aarau coach Ottmar Hitzfeld into a transfer. The German had already led his club to the Swiss Cup the year before, and saw the New Zealand forward as the ideal reinforcement for an assault on the domestic league. 

Further trophies eluded the team from the Aargau canton, but it wasn’t for the lack of goals on Rufer’s part, as he posted 31 strikes over two predatory seasons. In 1988, it became clear that he was a big fish in a small pond, and nobody was surprised when he returned to Zürich to be reunited with Hitzfeld at Grasshoppers.

Another Swiss Cup followed as another goal-laden season had Europe’s top clubs coveting his egregious talent. Despite interest from Lazio, Rufer signed for Werder Bremen in the summer of 1989 after being impressed by the plans of coach Otto Rehhagel. Under the laconic Gemran’s kontrollierte offensif tacticsBremen won the title in 1987 only for Bayern Munich to pip them the following year.    

“Why aren’t you playing at Real Madrid?” quipped Rehhagel during one training session with his new forward. The coach knew that the New Zealander’s imperious technique and ability to glide over the pitch could be devastating in the German league, and his partnership with Klaus Allofs became one of the most fearsome in the country. 

Aided by their new strikeforce, Bremen finished third in the 1990/91 season to qualify for a place in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Rufer had been one of the revelations of the season, with even Franz Beckenbauer anointing him as the best forward in the league. His penalty technique, in particular, would become one of the most lethal in Germany, mastering the art of waiting for the goalkeeper to move before planting a desultory finish in the opposite corner. 

The next season would prove one of the most momentous in Werder Bremen’s history, despite a disappointing league finish that saw them tumble several places in the league. After sidestepping Bacău and Ferencváros in the early rounds of the Cup Winner’s Cup, Bremen faced the stern challenge of Galatasaray in the quarter-final. A 2-1 victory at home meant that the Green-Whites travelled to Istanbul knowing a clean sheet would be enough. So it proved, with goalkeeper Oliver Reck guarding his goal jealously on a snow-covered evening in the Turkish capital.

The reward for their victory would be a clash with Belgian giants Club Brugge. Fans of both clubs clashed angrily before, during and after the games, but the aggression was confined mostly to the stands as Bremen completed a relatively comprehensive 2-1 victory on aggregate. The Germans were through to face Arsàne Wenger’s Monaco for the final in Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz. 

The team from the principality had their own superstars, a young Emmanuel Petit keeping Lilian Thuram on the bench while George Weah competed with Youri Djorkaeff for a place up front. The final, in May 1992, was a strange occasion, as just 16,000 fans watched Miroslav Votava lead his Bremen teammates from the tunnel.

After Klaus Allofs buried the opener on 40 minutes, he turned provider in the second half, putting Rufer through for a one-on-one with goalkeeper Jean-Luc Ettori just after the hour mark. In an echo of Pelé’s famous runaround against Uruguay in the 1970 World Cup, Rufer dinked the ball one way and went the other round the despairing Monaco stopper, smashing the ball into the net before being clattered by desperate the defenders. 

When the final whistle went, Bremen received the first of only two European titles throughout their history. The trophy seemed permanently attached to Rufer’s hand, as he brought it towards the stands to share the moment with his father who had been watching with the supporters. Long after his teammates has returned to the dressing room, Rufer remained on the pitch, taking photos with the assembled press corps, savouring every second of the glory. By the time the team returned to the hotel to celebrate, Uli Borowka’s hair had already been shaved off in jest, and Rufer and his teammates basked in their hard-won achievements. 

The next year would be even better. Only Ulf Kirsten and Tony Yeboah scored more goals in the Bundesliga, as Rufer’s 17 strikes brought Bremen their first domestic title in five years. Their reward was a place in the Champions League, as they became Germany’s first-ever representatives in the group stages of the competition. 

Drawn into a group with Anderlecht, Porto and AC Milan, Werder were widely expected to struggle. And struggle they did, Rufer scoring a consolation goal during a 3-2 defeat away to Porto in the opening game. The second game of their Champions League campaign would, however, go down as one of the greatest in European history. 

Inspired by midfield maestro Philippe Albert, Anderlecht ran Werder ragged in the first half at the Weserstadion on a frigid December evening. The home side were 3-0 down, with Rufer not even having touched the ball. The second half, though, would be a different story. 

After consolidating for the first 15 minutes, Rufer cracked in what seemed to be a cursory goal just after the hour mark. When Rune Bratseth headed another, the home crowd smelled blood. Rufer would send them into raptures on 81 minutes, his fabulous skill allowing Bernd Hobsch to nod in an unlikely equaliser. With just nine minutes left on the clock, Marco Bode scored a fourth, before the best player on the pitch crowned a magnificent fightback with his second of the night. The game became known as the Wonder von der Weser, and Rufer became a Werder Bremen icon. 

It wasn’t enough to save the Champions League campaign, though. Bremen lost narrowly against Milan at the San Siro before being spanked 5-0 in the return fixture against Porto. It would be a decade before they returned to football’s top table.

Back then, Rufer was already in his 30s. His incredible performances had seen him share the top goalscorer award with Ronald Koeman, but it was clear that he was a player coming in the twilight of his career. He departed for the J-League in 1995 after scoring in his second DFB-Pokal final as Bremen secured the cup, joining other veterans like Toto Schillachi and Oleg Protasov in the Far East. Like every other club he played for, Rufer scored goals for JEF United, his 25 strikes helping the club to a comfortable mid-table finish. 

His stay in Japan would be short-lived, however. Otto Rehhagel had been summoned to right the tanker at Kaiserslautern after their unseemly relegation, and Rufer returned to Germany to help the Red Devils secure promotion with weeks to spare. 

After returning to New Zealand on holiday that summer, he became convinced of the need to professionalise and expand on the football structures in his native country. After a hastily arranged transfer to Central United, the change of pace allowed him to develop an academy with the help of his brother Shane. The Wynton Rufer Soccer Academy – WYNRS – was established not only to promote well-rounded football ability but also well-rounded citizens. 

When he wasn’t helping shape the next generation of New Zealand athletes, Rufer had time to win the New Zealand Cup with his new club before signing as a player/manager for his country’s first ever professional outfit, the cringeworthily-named Kingz FC, in 1999. He retired from the game in December 2001, his astonishing record of 30 goals in 45 European games saying all that needed to be said. 

In a country dominated by rugby, Rufer’s unfettered success has often been overlooked. Were he Italian or Spanish, the Wellington-natives’ achievements would undoubtedly have seen him become a sporting celebrity. Rufer, though, is relatively unaffected by the attention that troubles football stars on the European continent. 

It is both a blessing and a curse that his accomplishments have never truly been celebrated to the extent that they deserve.  Still, 224 goals in 539 games and eight trophies are more than enough to salve any wounded egos, not to mention an award as Oceania’s Player of the Century. Not bad for a kid from Wellington who wanted to be like Pelé.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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