Vicelich, Riley claim Oceania's top honour
New Zealand veteran Ivan Vicelich and Women's Professional Soccer-winning defender Ali Riley were presented with their OFC Player of Year awards prior to the All Whites match against Honduras at North Harbour stadium in Auckland on Saturday.
The Kiwi pair were named as winners prior to the OFC Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa, in June but have had to wait for their achievements to be formally recognised.
Vicelich is currently playing in China while Riley also has a full-time football career, with USA WPS champions FC Gold Pride. But Riley was in town this month to help her Football Ferns side take out the OFC Women's Nations Cup title - and qualify for the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2010™ in the process - while Vicelich returned to play for the All Whites in their friendlies against Honduras and Paraguay.
Receiving the prestigious award marks a remarkable turnaround for Vicelich. The 33-year-old put a halt to his international career mid-way through 2008, only to step in for an injured Ryan Nelsen at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009. He went on to play in the historic two-leg FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Bahrain and then enjoyed a new lease of life at the tournament in South Africa as a midfielder.
Although he is now on a short-term contract in China, he came home to New Zealand two years ago after an eight-year professional stint in The Netherlands and will return to play for Auckland City in the upcoming OFC O-League and domestic campaigns.
"Coming back to New Zealand turned out to be the greatest move I've made in my career," he says. "It's great to be back at Kiwitea Street and doing well on the Oceania front. And to qualify for the World Cup is one of the greatest moments in New Zealand sport."
In contrast, American born Ali Riley is just at the beginning of what looks to be a promising career. The 22-year-old full-back has been an integral part of the New Zealand women's team since her debut in 2007 and helped the Football Ferns to a credible fourth-place finish at the 2009 Cyprus Cup.
Riley, who has a Kiwi father and Chinese-American mother from southern California, has also had an outstanding season in the States, being named WPS Rookie of the Year as her Pride side took out the title.
"I have to thank coaches John Herdman and Tony Readings and the management staff but also of course my Football Ferns team-mates, who are just as deserving of this award," she says. "Hopefully I can help pave the way for more girls from Oceania to achieve their goals in football."
The 2008 winners were prolific New Zealand goalscorers Shane Smeltz and teenager Rosie White, who won the inaugural Women's OFC Player of the Year.
The first ever winner was Australia's Frank Farina in 1988. Since then Tahiti's Christian Karembeu and Marama Vahirua are the only two players from outside Australia or New Zealand to feature. New Zealand's Wynton Rufer and Australia's Harry Kewell have each claimed the honour on three occasions, more than any other player.