Household name: Rufer ready to lead Phoenix's new generation
He may hold the most famous surname in New Zealand football but Alex Rufer doesn’t feel the pressure.
The 23-year-old Wellington Phoenix midfielder never has.
Rufer is the son of former Kiwi international Shane Rufer and nephew of Oceania player of the century, Wynton.
Both played senior football for two decades: Shane enjoyed great success in Switzerland, the nation of his son’s birth, while Wynton won four Bundesliga titles with Werder Bremen.
“It was always a driving factor,” Rufer told www.aleague.com.au. “We were pretty much born with the ball at our feet.
“But they didn’t put any pressure on us to play. It’s really good to have them help me, and they always give me feedback.”
INS AND OUTS: Wellington Phoenix
Rufer is only 23 but operates like an experienced campaigner, who many believed a superb candidate to take the armband from departed club icon Andrew Durante.
Steven Taylor was the man appointed Durante’s successor, but the mere fact Rufer was held in similar esteem to the former Premier League hardman, despite being his junior by 10 years and hundreds of matches, reflects on how highly he is regarded by Phoenix players, staff and fans.
Nonetheless, the Geneva-born midfielder will be one of the on-field lieutenants of choice for new boss Ufuk Talay.
Talay – who had just seven contracted players at his disposal when taking the reins in April – has opted for a ‘project youth’ approach to rebuild a Phoenix roster decimated by a departure list headlined by top scorer Roy Krishna, goalkeeper of the year Filip Kurto and club icon Durante.
It is an approach sure to make Phoenix a breath of fresh air in the upcoming season, and one that Rufer backs to the hilt.
“We embrace it,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young Kiwis, and we’re all strong mentally, we’re all fighters and that’s going to help us.
“We’ve got players that are hungry and ambitious, and that just builds competitiveness.
“It drives a lot of team culture. Just having a lot of youngsters makes every training and every game so competitive because there’s so much competition for positions. The young ones are always on their toes – and that keeps you on your toes. Everyone wants to get better.”
Rufer signed his first professional contract with Phoenix in 2013, and although he has been part of the Wellington furniture since, last season was a true breakthrough.
He played 25 times – three more than he’d managed in the five seasons previous – and was one of Mark Rudan’s most consistent performers as Wellington made their first Final Series since 2014/15.
“Last season was brilliant,” Rufer said. “Mark was amazing for us but that just set a benchmark for what we want to do this year.
“We want to be better than what we were last year. That's the type of culture and type of team we've got.”
If Phoenix are to build upon their sixth-place finish of 2018/19, much will depend on how quickly their foreign signings can adapt to the competition and nurture the potential of their talented young teammates.
English striker David Ball is a stout acquisition, while Mexican livewire Ulises Davila has the ability to get pulses racing in the same manner of the departed Krishna.
Former German youth international Matti Steinmann, meanwhile, could partner Rufer at the base of the Phoenix midfield.
“Matti is a very strong boy, a strong fit,” Rufer said. “He’s got good technique, he’s a good passer and he's a dog in defence.
“He presses, he works hard to win the ball back and that's what we need. He's got a great attitude and he's going to fit in well.”
Wellington kick off the new campaign at home to Western United in Round 1, on October 13.
It is a match that has the potential to be explosive, and one that pits Rufer against the returning Rudan, the man who gave the young Kiwi his Hyundai A-League breakthrough.
Also returning to Wellington will be Durante, Kurto and midfielder Max Burgess, who all joined Rudan for the club’s inaugural season.
“We just have to go out there and win,” said Rufer.
“It's going to be pumped up and it makes the occasion a bit bigger. We just want to win and start the season off like we did last year with a W.”
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