You could make a compelling case that no one has done more for Football in New Zealand than Steve Sumner, even if Wynton Rufer might have been our highest profile player and was named Oceania Player of the Century.
Sumner, whose long battle with prostate cancer came to an end this morning with his passing at age 61, holds a special place in the hearts of football fans across the country. He was of course the captain of the side that captured a nation with their epic run to qualify for the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain; an odyssey that saw them firstly go unbeaten in the Oceania round, drawing 3-3 with Australia in Auckland (where he was one of the scorers) then beating the old enemy 2-0 in the return meeting in Sydney. In the final match against Fiji he scored six times in the 13-0 rout.
The second round was a rollercoaster, a draw away and a home win over China, a controversial loss to Kuwait and two more draws (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) left them needing a six-goal win in Riyadh. Unbelievably they had five by halftime but the last eluded them. That set up a playoff with China on a steamy night in Singapore, a 2-1 result meant they were off to Spain.
Given that Oceania and Asia combined were only given two places in the 24-team finals it still ranks as one of the greatest accomplishments by a New Zealand side. Sumner was at the forefront of that.
That historic first appearance didn’t have the fairytale ending, losing 2-5 to Scotland, 0-3 to the Soviet Union and 0-4 to the might of Brazil. Still the side were celebrated heroes, and by opening our account against the Scots – Steve Woodin got the other – Sumner became the first player from Oceania to score at the finals since Australia failed to find the net in 1974.
Arguably, no team in New Zealand sports history is as beloved as the 1982 All Whites.
Born in England Sumner came out to New Zealand in his late teens and with the exception of stints in Australia for Newcastle United and West Adelaide played the rest of his career here. His six Chatham Cup medals (four with Christchurch United, one each with Manurewa and Gisborne City) are the most in the competitions history, and his international career spanned 105 matches for the All Whites, 58 of them full A-internationals in which he scored 22 goals.
He never lost his English accent, but that proved an asset as it gave him a sense of dignified authority on the game. That proved an asset in his post-playing days where it served the game in almost every way possible; coach, administrator, and TV commentator and pundit.
Few could have been prouder of 2010 teams World Cup campaign that he was, and who would have begrudged him that. In many many ways he was directly responsible for laying the groundwork for it.
Even as cancer took hold he fought it as hard as any he faced on the field, and his appointment as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016 was richly deserved recognition. In 2010 he was awarded FIFA’s highest honour the FIFA Order of Merit; alongside him that day was another now-gone titan of the game, Johan Cruyff.
Steven Paul Sumner ONZM. Job done lad.
Follow Scott on Twitter