He may have hung up his boots seven years ago, but Wynton Rufer is still as passionate about football as he was when signing his first professional contract for Norwich City in October 1981. Fast forward 26-and-a-half years and FIFA's Oceania Player of the Century is back in his homeland and masterminding 'Wynrs' - the Wynton Rufer Soccer School of Excellence.
'Excellence' is a word which ran throughout Rufer's career. During his playing days he won the Swiss Cup, the German Cup, the European Cup Winners' Cup and the Bundesliga. He now faces a challenge of a different kind; moulding young players who will hopefully emulate his own successes at club and international level.
"I've been running my Wynrs Academy for 11 years, since I came back to New Zealand from Germany," he told FIFA.com. "The reason why I came back was because of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which took place in 1999. If FIFA hadn't have awarded that tournament to New Zealand, I never would have come back. So, FIFA are responsible for where I am now!"
Wynrs, which has recently seen two youngsters sign contracts with a Premier League and J.League club respectively, operates in Auckland and nurtures 220 youngsters between the ages of 7-15 in its full-time programme, while coaching 200-250 children per term in its 'grassroots' scheme. Although principally in charge of overseeing the operation, Rufer still finds time to be a hands-on coach - and makes a point of being out on the training field at least one day a week.
"I'm now on a pathway of trying to help the game, trying to help young players - and I realise that it is a lifelong mission," he continued. "I've developed a skills based programme for countries who are ranked 80 or lower in the FIFA Ranking, which I believe can help them to progress to the next level. It's fairly easy to follow - and everything is done with the ball. That's what made me into the player I became - working with the ball, day in, day out."
But Wynrs is not just about finding the next Chris Killen or Ryan Nelsen. Rufer has now taken his programme to four schools in the deprived areas of Auckland. For the 45-year-old, football coaching is not just about instructing youngsters about the game, but also teaching them lessons in life.
"The great thing about is that we are making a difference in the community," said Rufer, who is also a member of the FIFA Football Committee and a FIFA Ambassador Against Racism. "There have been a lot of problems in the schools we've gone in to, but thankfully, those problems seem to reduce wherever we go. The kids love sport and they have a great rapport with the coaches - and it gives me tremendous satisfaction to see the changes we're making. The programme has been so successful that we've been given more money by the Mayor of Auckland to go into more schools. The teachers are delighted: truancy is down, aggression between the pupils is down - and they credit the coaching."
Fond memories from a glittering career
A coach, Rufer believes, can have a huge impact on the life of an individual, so it inevitably begs the question: who were the most influential coaches in his own career?
"Ottmar Hitzfeld and Otto Rehhagel," he answered, without hesitation. "I played under Ottmar for two and a half years just before I came to Germany. He is an outstanding coach, excellent at training programmes and gets into the psyche of the players. He gave me the last push I needed to make it at a top European club. Then I went to play under Otto Rehhagel. His man-management skills are absolutely unique - and that's why I think he was so successful as a club manager and with Greece."
It was under Rehhagel at Werder Bremen that Rufer's proudest moment as a professional footballer occurred. Perhaps surprisingly, it had nothing to do with silverware, European football or personal accolades. It did, however, have everything to do with children - and the impact that the beautiful game can have on the wider world.
"I helped to organise a friendly in Erfurt while I was at Werder Bremen in order to raise money for a Catholic children's home," recalled Rufer. "We played the game - and then we went to the children's home for a reception. The players were so moved by it that they invited the children to Bremen to come and stay with them for a weekend.
"A few weeks later, each player welcomed a couple of children into his home. When we had to say goodbye to the kids, they were picked up by the team coach and taken back to the children's home, some of the senior players were crying. It was a remarkable sight seeing these professional footballers break down. It's amazing the way that football can break down barriers."
When Rufer was a boy himself, Pele was the player who most excited the proud Kiwi - and whose skills he used to try and copy at every opportunity. Consequently, when New Zealand were drawn to play Brazil at the 1982 FIFA World Cup™, a certain 19-year-old's heart skipped a beat.
"Getting against Brazil, was a dream come true," he said. "But the irony was that I was the only one of the New Zealand team who missed meeting Pele! I was out on the field taking photos - I was like a tourist. So, there I was on the pitch in Seville snapping away, waving to my family in the crowd and getting photos taken with the fans, but while I was doing this, Pele was in our dressing room, shaking hands with the team - and I missed out!
"At the time, I couldn't believe my bad luck, but fortunately I get to meet him all the time now, thanks to my work with FIFA."