WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand soccer plunged into mourning on Wednesday with the death of former national captain Steve Sumner, who led the side to their first World Cup finals in Spain in 1982.
Sumner was 61 and had been suffering from prostate cancer.
“What he and the All Whites team from 1982 achieved in that FIFA World Cup campaign put New Zealand on the world football map and his legacy will last forever,” New Zealand Football chief executive Andy Martin said.
”The gang of ‘82 kick-started football in New Zealand and we wouldn’t be here today without what they did.
“Steve will remembered as a tough player who shook New Zealand, a rugby country, into realising there was something else out there called football.”
An attacking midfielder, Sumner was born in England and spent his youth career at Blackpool and Preston North End before moving to New Zealand in 1973 and settling in Christchurch.
He carved out a successful club career, mostly with Christchurch United though he also played for Manurewa and Gisborne City.
Sumner won five league championships and six Chatham Cup titles, which is New Zealand’s equivalent of England’s FA Cup.
It was on the international stage for his adopted nation, however, that Sumner made the most important mark.
He played 105 times for New Zealand, 58 of which were classed as ‘A’ internationals from 1976-88, and dragged them through a torturous 15-game qualifying campaign that stretched from the South Pacific, the Middle East and into Asia to make the World Cup finals in Spain.
He scored New Zealand’s first goal in their 5-2 loss to Scotland and led the side with distinction as they lost 3-0 to the Soviet Union and 4-0 to Brazil in their other group games, which helped put the Oceania region on the global stage.
“The achievements of Steve and the team during that FIFA World Cup campaign created a strong legacy for New Zealand Football, and also the Oceania region,” Oceania Football Confederation President David Chung said.
“It is truly a sad day and I know Steve will be greatly missed by many.”
Kevin Fallon, who was an assistant to All Whites coach John Adshead for the 1982 campaign before taking over as national coach, said he would remember Sumner for his mental toughness and drive for more from his team mates.
“As a player he could be a real handful. He wanted everything to be spot on. He wanted effort out of his team mates,” Fallon said.
”In the early days we used to have some battles. He was strong willed ... but it was mainly because he wanted things done 100 percent.
“He wanted perfection ... and I liked that.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Napier, New Zealand; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly