National team captain Ryan Nelsen and defensive rock is far and away New Zealand’s most recognisable name, and arguably behind only the high-profile Wynton Rufer as the best credentialed Kiwi footballer of all time. Long a fans favourite at Blackburn Rovers, the mobile central-defender is now in his sixth year at Ewood Park and has penned a deal through to 2012.
The inspirational skipper debuted for the All Whites eleven years ago but injury and club commitments have restricted his appearances at international level. Nelsen didn’t have the opportunity to play for the national team for a four-year period leading up to 2008, however he doubled-up national team duties by playing as an overage player at the Beijing Olympics, breaking club commitments to do so.
Nelsen became the only New Zealander to feature in an FA Cup final appearing for Blackburn in 2007, only to suffer defeat in extra time against Chelsea. He is just one of five New Zealanders to play in the English Premier League with current All Whites Simon Elliott and Chris Wood also amongst that elite group. The Rovers defensive stalwart has played some 150 matches for the club even though a serious hamstring injury blighted almost a full season.
Very much the heartbeat of the national team thanks to his profile and leadership on the pitch, Nelsen’s organisational skills cannot be underestimated. Though only rarely finding the net at club level, the Christchurch native has scored several goals for the All Whites and is always a danger at set-pieces. He would have joined a rare group of players to have competed in three FIFA Confederations Cups, having appeared at Mexico in 1999 and France in 2003, only for the injury curse to strike again just prior to South Africa 2009.
Prior to joining Blackburn, Nelsen was a star performer with MLS side DC United with whom he spent four years. After assuming the captaincy in 2003 Nelsen was named in the league XI. He repeated the feat a year later after captaining DC to its fourth MLS Cup.
His international career highlight to date was undoubtedly captaining New Zealand in their two-legged play-off against Bahrain which ensured qualification to the world’s greatest football stage for the first time in 28 years. In South Africa Nelsen will join the All Whites captain at Spain 1982, Steve Sumner, as the only players to lead the national team at a FIFA World Cup.