[QUOTE Person="New Zealand’s 1982 World Cup Captain Steve Sumner" Phrase="Somebody’s run a bath for you, you can see the steam coming off but you never know how hot it is until you put your toe in."]
14 June 1982, Estadio La Rosaleda, Málaga, Spain. Three goals down against Scotland on New Zealand’s World Cup debut in Spain, the All Whites had found out how just hot the water could be.
A goal by Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish and a brace from John Wark had rocked New Zealand barely half an hour in to their Group 6 opener.
Regrouping in the dressing room at halftime with some well-chosen words from coach John Adshead, New Zealand rediscovered the qualities that saw them emerge from a world record 15-game qualifying campaign throughout Oceania and Asia. Before even boarding the plane to Spain, they had already clocked up over 90,000 kilometres.
Nine minutes into the second half and New Zealand had not just dipped their toe, they had jumped in wholeheartedly with Sumner registering a ground breaking first World Cup goal for an Oceania side.
“I remember Wynton Rufer beat Frankie Gray on their left hand flank,” he said.
“When he got down there it was my role to get forward and try to put pressure on. Wynton bent the ball in behind their backline and that’s what I did; just put pressure on and see if there’s a mistake.”
Scottish right-back Danny McGrain left his backpass to Scottish goalkeeper Alan Rough short, and Sumner’s tenacity saw him beat Rough to the ball, just.
“Rough had committed himself but I got there first and managed to get a toe at it, poked it underneath him and as I’m stumbling over the top of him I manage to stick it away. I couldn’t miss that from there.”
An English-born attacking midfielder, Sumner went on to play a record 105 times for his adopted country, including 58 ‘A’ internationals, and he had a knack of finding the back of the net.
While the goal at Estadio La Rosadela won’t go down as the prettiest strike among his 22 international goals, it is undoubtedly his most memorable, even if the former skipper still prefers to describe its significance in the context of the team.
“ John Adshead had laid down a challenge before we got to Spain: could we score goals at a World Cup finals? We knew we could defend if we wanted to; we could get people back in numbers. But that’s not what John wanted. He wanted to see, at that level, if we could score goals because that’s something that Australia hadn’t done in 1974.
“It gave us a lift, knowing we could score. Not long after that Woody makes it 3-2 and you could sense a change.”
Although Sumner didn’t celebrate his goal much at the time – he was too eager to get on with the game – there was a poignant personal moment to savour.
“As I ran back to the centre circle with the ball tucked under my arm I looked over my shoulder to where I knew my parents were sitting and I saw my father stood up with his arms aloft. I’m sure he enjoyed seeing his lad scoring in the World Cup finals. That was quite special.”
New Zealand’s fight back was ultimately seen off with two more Scottish goals, and the challenge for the Kiwis only intensified with matches against the Soviet Union and Brazil looming.
But Sumner and his teammates were never ones to back down.
“We had a bunch of blokes who were hard nosed. We weren’t pros but we could play a bit and we weren’t going to let anyone run over us. I knew we had a lot of blokes with backbone and some quality too.”
The 1982 campaign left a lasting legacy in New Zealand – and the ‘Road to Spain’ still has a special ring to it with the New Zealand public. The qualifying marathon gave something positive and largely unexpected for fans to rally behind at a time when a rugby tour by Apartheid-era South Africa had proved divisive. The journey captivated the country.
“I think the New Zealand sporting public looked at their football team in a different light,” says Sumner.
“As we grew as football players, the supporters went with us. Some people became football fans, others just became more knowledgeable about the game by following us through those qualifiers.”
The ripples of the campaign were also felt in New Zealand’s only other World Cup appearance. Ricki Herbert and Brian Turner, who both played in the 1982 tournament, coached the side who were eliminated from the 2010 finals without losing a match. Additionally, goalkeeper Frank van Hattum chaired the national association’s board at the time.
Sumner himself would go on to serve many roles in the sport, including on the boards of New Zealand Football and Wellington Phoenix FC. He was awarded the FIFA Centennial Order of Merit in 2004 and the FIFA Order of Merit in 2010 becoming one of just four people – alongside Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and P.K. Banerjee – to receive both honours.
He now faces an even tougher battle, with a prostate cancer diagnosis that has given him survival odds of less than 50:50.
He is leaving nothing to chance, supplementing his treatment with diet, exercise and anything else that might tilt the odds in his favour, while using his name recognition to urge other men to get checked.
“I approached my prognosis like I did as a footballer. Once I had the motivation – my grandson, my kids and my wife – my football instincts kicked in. I never went on to the football pitch unprepared. If someone beats you on the weekend you hold your hand up and say well done.
“If it gets me in the end, it gets me, but I’m going to fight like the clappers because that’s what we do. We stand up and fight until we hear the bell.”