The man who led New Zealand football’s charge to qualify for next year’s Olympic Games used to get his kicks playing for Queenstown.
New Zealand under-23 skipper Willem Ebbinge was man-of-the-match in his team’s 3-1 win over Fiji at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium on August 30, the opening game of the Oceania qualifiers for the Olympics in France.
He then led the team to an 8-0 thumping of Vanuatu in the semi-final on September 6, and on Saturday at North Harbour Stadium helped the OlyWhites book their tickets to the Paris Olympics, crushing Fiji 9-0.
Earlier, Ebbinge, 22, told Mountain Scene securing the golden ticket to France 2024 would be an “unbelievable experience that very
few athletes get the opportunity to do’’.
No stranger to representing his country on the highest youth stages, Ebbinge played in both the U17 and U19 world cups.
With Olympic qualification in the bag, he flies back to the United States this week to head into his fourth and final season of college at Harvard University.
The economics and psychology major is one of a number of overseas internationals recruited to play for the prestigious uni’s top ‘varsity’ team in the Ivy League.
The side is half American and half ‘‘from everywhere — Italy, Costa Rica, England, Canada and Argentina — which makes for a great dynamic’’, he says.
‘‘The next three months is super-intense where we play 20 games in 10 weeks.
‘‘This season we’ve got a really exciting team … hopefully we can win the Ivy League and have a little run at the national tournament [College Cup].’’
Unlike in international football, the US college comps allow substitutions to be continuously rolled on and off, making the games ‘‘extremely physical’’ with regularly-refreshed players going hard against one another.
Ebbinge was 10 when his family moved from Auckland to the resort and he began playing for the Queenstown Football Club’s juniors.
He was soon a regular in the Central Otago tournament teams before leaving for Wellington to board at Scots College at 13.
There he joined the newly-set-up Wellington Phoenix Academy and moved up the ranks of the A-League club before taking the opportunity to study and play football at Harvard in 2019.
‘‘When I’m back in NZ, Queenstown’s always home and where I go to catch up with friends and family.’’
When his schedule permits, he has had the odd cameo for the Queenstown Rovers, organised by former club coach Jamie Whitmarsh, his old junior rep mentor.
Whitmarsh tells Scene Ebbinge is ‘‘the best player to come out of this region, bar none’’.
‘‘I can make that assessment based on his talent.
‘‘You see a lot of people with a lot of quality and they work hard, just like him, but he’s got the sort of X-factor that enables him to be a game-changer.’’