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mail: jan@planetworldcup.com


Planet World Cup is proud to present this exclusive interview with Steve Sumner - New Zealand's 1982 World Cup captain. Sumner has been awarded FIFA's Centennial Order of Merit for his contribution to the game in the Oceania region and New Zealand in particular. He talks about his career and memories from the World Cup in Spain with PWC webmaster Jan Alsos in this comprehensive article.

Steve Sumner scores against Scotland.

Sumner challenged by Scottish legend Kenny Dalglish.

Sumner in possession against the Soviet Union.

Sumner chasing Socrates.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


Exclusive interview: Steve Sumner

 

By Jan Alsos

    For starters, please give us a brief summary of your playing career at club level.

I was an apprentice pro at Blackpool, can't remember the year but I signed the same year they were relegated from the old division one (Premiership these days). I had a few months at both Preston and Grimsby before returning to my home town of Preston. The assistant manager at PNE, former Irish international Peter Doherty, who was a real gentleman cared for younger players, asked me to go and see him as other clubs in the North of England were interested in me. I met with Peter and I explained that I wanted to play overseas and he said he had a club in New Zealand named Christchurch Utd that would be interested in me. Anyway to cut a long story short I arrived in New Zealand as a seventeen year old in March 1973 and that first season we won the NZ national league. I spent two periods with Ch-ch Utd 73-80 and 87-89. in between while I played for Newcastle Utd in Australia 1981 and West Adelaide Hellas in 1982. Then back to New Zealand and Manurewa from 1983-1986 before heading to Gisborne City in 1987 as player coach winning the Chatham Cup (NZ equivalent of the English FA Cup) and finished 2nd in national league. Finally returning to Ch-ch Utd in 1988-89. In all I played in six Chatham Cup winning teams and 5 national league winning teams. In 1983 I was also the golden boot winner and player of the year.

Did you, or any of your World Cup teammates, play professionally or did you have regular jobs on the side?

We were a team of essentially part time players, some were amateurs with perhaps only Wynton Rufer playing full time. It was normal for players to have other employment as well as play football.

Tell us about that long and tiresome qualification campaign for Spain '82. You weren't exactly handed that World Cup spot on a silver plate, were you?

Well, no we weren't, but I wouldn't want it any other way, we wanted to be justifiably included in the World Cup finals knocking off the likes of Australia, China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait along the way. It was a magnificent journey that was like a fairy tale and dream come true. For a country who's number one sport is rugby, football (or soccer as it is known in NZ) to even think of playing the likes of Brazil, USSR and Scotland in the World Cup finals was considered the impossible dream. During the qualifying campaign we played more games, travelled further, scored the most goals and went the longest without conceding a goal amongst some of the records we broke back in 1981.

What ambitions did you and your team have going in to the World Cup grouped with Brazil, Scotland and the Soviet Union?

None of our guys had played at this level before so for us it was a bit like dipping your foot in the bath, would the water be too hot or a temperature we could cope with. Our coaches John Adshead and Kevin Fallon set us the target of not only representing our country with great pride and passion, but also to score goals at this level which is something Australia couldn't do before us in 1974.

Tell us about the opening game against Scotland (2-5). New Zealand in a World Cup match for the first time. Must have been special.

Yes, it was very special for all of New Zealand, we knew we now had the whole sporting public in NZ right behind us. They had seen us in our qualifying campaign and were justifiably proud of their team. Such was the impression back then that those who really had no interest in football until 1981 wondered if we could actually win the World Cup. We of course knew this was a whole new ball game, and that we would have to adjust to a much faster game than we were used too. Scotland had the likes of Dalglish, Souness, Robertson, Wark, Hansen and Strachan all household names, so it was a great test for us first up. On a beautiful night in Malaga infront of a largely Scottish crowd we made our World Cup debut. At halftime we were 3-0 down and our coach asked more of us, test yourselves, chance your arm he said, you deserve the right to be here, don't let yourselves down, etc.

It worked, within 15 minutes we'd pulled two back and now trailed 3-2. I got the first, Wynton Rufer made a break down the right and played a ball in behind Danny McGrain (Scots skipper) and as I closed in, McGrain played the ball back to the keeper (Alan Rough), but before Rough could get to it, I got there first and I can remember just trying to keep it down and tuck it under the Scots keeper. The ball seemed to squeeze under Rough and as I tumbled over him I just managed to keep my feet for one more touch that was enough to force the ball over the line for our very first World Cup finals goal, and as I mentioned earlier this was one of the targets our coach set for us, to score at this level.

It was hard to celebrate, we were 3-1 down but momentum had seemed to change. I gathered the ball out of the back of the net so we could get on with the game and as I made my way back to halfway I recall looking in the direction of the stands were I thought my parents would be seated and there was my father, stood up arms aloft as if this was the winner. 10 minutes later we got our second, Steve Wooddin had smashed one in from the edge of the box, brilliant 3-2 down and now definitely we had the edge, they started having a go at each other as if what had just happened wasn't part of the script. Then another 10 minutes go by and they are awarded a very dubious free kick on the edge of our box. The sort of position you'd like to find yourself in at the opposite end of the pitch. John Robertson of Nottingham Forest stepped up and delightfully struck the ball into the top corner, they celebrated, the Scots in the crowd went mad. Steve Archibald (Spurs) on as a sub got their fifth with a header from a corner with ten minutes to go and I later remember seeing him describe it in a British football magazine as the best goal he'd ever scored, I thought he was lucky but it still counted. Yes we lost 5-2 but we came back from three down against a pretty tidy Scottish team and I think kept our pride intact.

Then came the match against Soviet Union (0-3). Matchreports said the Soviets were fitter, faster and stronger. Do you agree?

They may have seemed fitter, faster and stronger, but more importantly they read the game quicker than us and on the night luck was on their side too. Twice good fortune fell their way with shots that rebounded into the path of their players inside our penalty area who greatly accepted this stroke of good fortune. We should have scored when the scores were 0-0 if I recall rightly. We'd made a break down the left and the ball was whipped into the back post where one of our guys unmarked missed the opportunity. We felt this team were better than the Scots, a little slicker with their passing and their movement off the ball better and of course they had the Soviet greats Oleg Blokhin and Dasaev in their team both absolutely outstanding world class players.

Before the match against Brazil (0-4) you were already out of the tournament. What was it like playing against legends like Zico, Socrates, Junior, Eder, Cerezo and Falcao on the greatest stage?

This is the most memorable game of my career and the one I'd looked forward to the most. Here we were, essentially part timers and amateurs from New Zealand taking on the foremost professional football team on the planet, dreams or nightmares are made of this stuff and Brazil paid us the ultimate compliment of starting with their best eleven, truly a brilliant experience. Before the game someone said Pele was outside our dressing room door, there was a mass exodus of players just to look at the game's greatest ever player at that time. Myself and about 4 others just carried on preparing ourselves trying not to let such things unsettle our concentration. Our coach said something like this as part of his pre-match speech: "We (John and assistant coach Kevin Fallon) have seen them play twice and at anyone time in the game the only ones who will remain static would be Waldir Peres (the keeper) and Serginho (a big centre forward in the old fashioned sense) all the rest are so mobile they could be anywhere at anytime." If John really wanted to heighten our sense of awareness he did so and we now expected to face something we had never experienced before.

The hairs stood up on your neck, goosebumps made you shiver. "Try and control the emotions" I thought, and as we walked up the steps of the underground tunnel in the ground at Seville, I looked across at Socrates as we led our teams out and I thought, this is it, the biggest stage in world football right here, right now Brazil v New Zealand unbelievable but true. You just about had to pinch yourself. The crowd were brilliant, it seemed like the whole crowd supported everyone's footballing favourites the mercurial Brazilians. Brass bands played, samba was danced, yellow and green everywhere and as we lined up alongside these mere mortals we wondered would we be put to the sword.

Almost 30 minutes into the game and with the score still 0-0 Zico scored with an overhead kick and the celebrations began both on and off the park as if every goal needed to be extravagantly celebrated. These blokes lived and breathed a beautiful style of football that changed my football philosophy forever. It was like being on another planet, possession was so valuable to them, not just kicked clear when under pressure but caressed and with a gentle swerve of the body an opening would appear or a magical first touch would instantly kill an uncontrollable ball or slice you open like a knife. I played directly opposite Socrates in the middle of the park and so it was my job to pick him up in my area or track him when he got forward. On one occasion he made a run into space, I followed, he checked and made another little run and dutifully so did I. At this point I felt somewhat out of position and glanced over my shoulder to see the ball on the opposite side of the pitch and wondered about the sense in marking so intently. As Brazil kept the ball we (Socrates and I) made our way back across the pitch, little 10-15 yard runs about three or four of them until Socrates decided he wanted the ball and as he checked off me he positioned himself to receive a short pass and in one flowing movement (and one touch) changed the point of attack and slipped a simple perfectly weighted pass to his team-mate over about 15 yards.

It may sound simple but it was sublime, he would have covered about 180 yards in that movement to give a simple 15 yards pass and retain that oh so valuable possession and open us up at the same time. Sheer class. Noticeably there wasn't the same physical edge to this game, I felt the game we played Scotland had a nasty tone to it at times and twice I felt the elbow of players, once in the face and once in the throat. against the Soviets it was robust, but against Brazil it was a totally different game, nothing nasty or robust at all Falcao and I challenged for a ball and I landed on top of him. With the ball a couple of yards away I tried to get up quicker than him but he was pulling me down by my shirt and it's amazing what goes through your mind in these circumstances, I thought "this must look so bad" as I couldn't get up and as the referee blew his whistle I thought "what's he blowing me up for" but fortunately he'd seen Falcao pulling on my shirt and we got the free kick.

This was as bad as it got against Brazil. As for the game, it was brilliant, magical at times, mesmerising on others and we lost 4-0. It would have been easy for people to think "will this be a cricket score" but our own team was made of stern stuff, fully committed, brave and a tremendous workrate so I knew we wouldn't crumble. Fact is I regard this game as my best ever and I'm taking into account you only get away with things against Brazil if they allow you to. I recall not giving the ball away much (as did the Brazilians) but creating things against them was a different story, I received the ball in midfield and as I looked to play things forward the back four seemed to tighten up across the park like a concertina expelling air on the inward motion and the only option they left me was to play the ball wide which I duly did, exactly as they'd allowed me to. Still it was brilliant, a night to remember, reputations intact, Brazil proved to me that they are from another planet and I will cherish this moment forever.

Tell us about life off the field in the World Cup. Where did you stay, what did you do between games etc.

We stayed at the Don Carlos hotel in Marbella, it was home away from home and perfect for our team, tennis courts, swimming pool, beach etc. All the things that allow you to relax between games. I must admit though we were too focused to really enjoy what the hotel and surrounding district had to offer during game time. We arrived early in Spain to acclimatise and complete our training and personally I thought we timed things perfectly as the most important thing to me was preparing for our games not the outside attractions. On arrival and prior to our games we'd continue fitness work, Kevin Fallon would have us setting off at 7 am for a run that covered the grounds and beach surrounding our hotel, probably something like 2 kms. Sometimes we'd stop during the run and do some strengthening exercises and at the completion of one lap, (we usually did two) we'd go through a stomach exercise routine. Then we'd complete a second lap of the circuit set out by Kevin and usually the competitive nature of the players turned this into a race to be the first back. It was tough but all the blokes appreciated it and got on with the job. After breakfast we'd train mid/late morning, working more on tactics etc so that we all knew our jobs come game time. Like all the teams there down time was important too and once I can remember having the afternoon at Puerto Buenos, not far from our hotel. Another day I recall we went to a bull fight.

What were John Adshead and Kevin Fallon like as coaches for that team?

Brilliant, understanding, very tough, they were a great team together who's pride and passion rubbed off on the players.

What were people's reactions in New Zealand when you came home after the tournament?

Very good, people knew we'd given our all and in a country dominated by rugby they began to understand how big football is in the rest of the world.

Looking back 23 years, what is your fondest memory from those weeks in Spain?

I enjoyed it all, but playing the games was the best part. How had this little nation on the other side of the world with a population of about 3.5million battled all odds knocked over bigger footballing countries than us and I can remember when we'd just beaten China 2-1 in a sudden death qualifier and Kevin Fallon said "the smallest country in the world beats the biggest, brilliant ".

Do you keep in touch with any of your '82 team-mates still?

Yes, but we live in many parts of New Zealand and Australia so not perhaps as often as we would all like. However it's like meeting your long lost brothers when we do catch up and in 2002 we had a 20th anniversary, celebrating our participation at the World Cup finals in Spain. The great thing about this team is most, if not all, have put something back into the game since they stopped playing, passing on their knowledge/skills, coaching, administration etc. at all levels of the game and many are still active in some way today.

No team from the Oceania region has qualified for a World Cup since you guys in 1982. What is the current state of soccer in New Zealand?

The game changes all the time and stands still for no one. Now in NZ we have one pro team who compete in the Australian a-league and our own national competition called New Zealand Football Championships which is essentially amateur. Many NZ players now play overseas and so the NZFC is something of a development ground for younger players who eventually wish to sign for a pro team somewhere and earn the living from the game. Also a number of our good young players head to the United States and play in their college/university system. Actually in New Zealand now we have more coaches earning a living out of the game than ever before so we are hopeful that in the years to come we'll see NZ players scattered throughout the world playing pro football at the highest level. Currently we have Ryan Nelsen playing at Blackburn Rovers who we are very proud of and a number of others playing in lower leagues.

What is Steve Sumner doing for a living nowadays?

I own Seafood Network Ltd an export company that sells seafood all around the world.

Finally, what do you think about Australia's chances of reaching the World Cup and who do you think will win the World Cup next year?

I hope Aussie do qualify, it would be nice to see our near neighbours in Germany representing the South Pacific. With Guus Hiddink they have a successful coach who's been there before and most of their players ply their trade in top European leagues so of course they will have a chance but it will not be easy. I saw Aussie play Uruguay in Melbourne last time and though Aussie won 1-0 I thought they might struggle in Uruguay and so it proved losing the return leg 3-0. This time though, they may have learnt from the previous games and the second leg is played in Australia which I think will suit the Aussies better this time.

It's a long way out to pick a winner of the final but like many people I think, Brazil are likely to be favourites and certainly my sentimental choice. In Germany though I'd expect the home team to be up for it and perhaps Holland. But isn't it great to see the African nations play their part and they are getting better and better. The last two Asian host teams Korea and Japan were enjoyable to watch last time also and just goes to show how popular this great game is all over the world.


Good luck to all
Cheers
Steve




 

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