The name Wynton Rufer is legendary in New Zealand football circles with the Wellington-native named Oceania Player of the Century for his goal-scoring feats with both club and country. As a youngster Rufer helped his nation to an against-the-odds qualification for the 1982 FIFA World Cup™ before carving out an impressive career in Switzerland, Germany, Japan and finally, in New Zealand. Most notable was a lengthy spell at Werder Bremen with Rufer’s stay coinciding with one of the most successful stints in the club’s history.

Now based in Auckland, Rufer runs a highly successful youth academy, often providing an outlet for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds. With Maori bloodlines on his mother’s side, Rufer talks to about his own experiences with racism and discrimination and expands on football’s unique ability to deal with such issues. With your Maori parentage did you experience discrimination as a youngster?
Wynton Rufer:
I used to sometimes get called Blackie as a youngster, and sometimes people try to say hurtful things, just to try and cut you down. From a very young age I was very driven to succeed and turned my focus elsewhere. I always tried to remain positive and look to the big picture.

Did you ever find yourself looked down upon in your younger days when football was very much a second-tier sport in New Zealand?
In some ways we were like second-class citizens and I can’t disagree with that view but I don’t want to make a big deal about it. I always liked to channel positive energy which is now why I now work with youth trying to make a difference with local communities and teaching good values.

In your playing career did you experience direct instances of racism or discrimination?
Definitely, playing in European football with Werder Bremen there were experiences with negative banners for one. Also from time to time in the Bundesliga as well, with African players being taunted which was pretty low and it was sad to see.
We experienced problems especially in Eastern Europe but it has largely changed. There is more integration in modern society and things have changed for the better.
For instance, Poland had a Nigerian-born player [Emmanuel Olisadebe] at the [2002] World Cup, so times have changed.

So what, as an individual, can one do to combat that kind of racism when it happens?
People must speak up about it either as a direct victim or a witness. We must communicate openly about it and only then can we fight the problem head on.

Is football uniquely placed among all sports to take effective action?
Football plays such an important role in modern society as the most popular sport in the world. It unites people like nothing else, as we saw in South Africa last year and it can genuinely make the world a better place. The various governing bodies have good campaigns based on values of respect and tolerance which is really positive.

How do you think soccer and FIFA can help in the fight against discrimination?
Dealing with it openly in forums such as this interview is important and all part of the process. Players speaking openly, such as Samuel Eto’o a few years ago, and not tolerating bad behaviour is important. It is something we need to teach our youth in local communities and footballers as role-models can significantly help. Teaching kids to understand this responsibility, which is something that starts in their own small communities. It’s all about making a difference in people lives and making the world a better place. That is the power sport has. It can unite the people. Loyalty, honesty, friendship, solidarity, these are all values that need to be promoted so that we can combat discrimination.