Stuff of Legends: When then-All Whites captain Danny Hay took on Ronaldo

Stuff of Legends is about the times Kiwi athletes took on the best In history – and got the ultimate memento. This is the story of when then-All Whites captain Danny Hay came up against Ronaldo, the generational football talent nicknamed ‘li Fenomeno.’"

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The All Whites coach went toe-to-toe with one of the sport's greats in 2006 and got a priceless memento for it. Source: 1 NEWS

Danny Hay may be coaching the All Whites now, but back in his playing days he came up against some formidable footballers.

His son’s bedroom is adorned with the shirts of previous opponents and teammates; Paul Merson, Olivier Dacourt, Alessandro Costacurta and Abelardo Fernández.

But his most treasured item is a framed shirt of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima’s – better known as Ronaldo.

“Special player, special team,” Hay reflects.

“That, for me, is a pretty unique shirt. I don't think too many people would have a proper Brazil No. 9 shirt knocking around their place.”

The weight of expectation

Ronaldo with teammates as they celebrate a goal against the All Whites. Source: Getty

Going into the 2006 World Cup, Brazil and the All Whites’ Nike sponsorship connection led to a pre-tournament friendly in Geneva.

At that stage, Ronaldo was already a living legend, coming back from the heartbreak of a World Cup final loss in 1998 and a number of career-threatening knee injuries.

His talents were duly rewarded at the 2002 World Cup, when he scored two goals against Germany in the final.

By the time the All Whites were facing Brazil, Ronaldo was coming under intense media scrutiny.

“There was so much talk about him specifically. There was a lot of talk about Brazil and how they were going to go at the [2006] World Cup,” Hay recalls.

“It was a generation of Brazilian players that were probably second to none.

“We knew that there was probably a little bit of pressure on him. He was going to have to perform, even though it was just up against New Zealand in their eyes. But yeah, a great opportunity to test yourself against a player of that ilk, and to be honest, we say that he was probably on his way down at that point — but I was well and truly on my way down as well!”

The game

Danny Hay blocks a shot from Juan. Source: Photosport

A barrage of Brazil attacks were repelled early on. Hay remembers a couple of clashes with the star striker.

“Super strong — when the ball came into him, he was physically quite a robust character.

“It wasn't easy to brush him aside, and step in and win the ball — that's for sure. But we had a few little physical encounters and I can remember he got a little bit... he didn't like being roughed up.

“So I think that was probably one little thing that I do look back on, knowing that he got a little bit annoyed with that. That's a little bit of a plus.”

But Hay’s match was cruelly cut short.

An abdominal injury had been causing him pain in the build-up to the game.

“I woke up in the morning and I was real pain, but there was no way I was going to miss that game.

“So we did everything we possibly could to try get out on the pitch. I remember the doc injecting me a few times in there. She said, basically, 'It's not going to do anything but we'll have a crack anyway.'”

He was “dirty” to only last 25 minutes.

Not long after he was substituted, Ronaldo opened the scoring – before coming off at half-time with his own injury.

The shirt swap

Ronaldo scores the opening goal against the All Whites in 2006. Source: Getty

“I don't know why I did it or what came over me — because it wasn't something I would generally ever do — but I thought, ‘Stuff it,’" Hay says.

He got up and charged across to the Brazil changing room.

“They basically had the full camera set up with [Ronaldo] stripped down to just his underwear.

“I think they were looking at his weight, because there was so much talk about his weight at the time and him being fit or unfit.

“They obviously wanted to get some pictures to show this guy's just a big strong guy.”

He says the pair made eye contact and he waved his shirt at the Brazilian.

“Shook hands and away we went. I don't know what he did with mine. I somehow suspect he doesn't have my shirt framed in his house like that,” he laughs.

Despite the eventual 4-0 score line, playing against the star-studded world champions was a career highlight for many.

But the All Whites team of today contains far more fully-fledged professional players than the squad of 2006.

So how would coach Hay feel about his younger players bursting into an opposition changing room to grab the jersey of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

“I'd be disappointed,” he responds.

“I think we've got a different mentality, culture now. I think the fact that we've got so many now over in Europe playing at a decent level, we've got players who have not just played in the Premier League, but have actually done bloody well in the Premier League.

“Winston [Reid]... [Chris] Woodsy... I think just that mentality and level of professionalism now is so much higher. That's nothing against what's gone on in the past, it's just we're in a different time. We don't want to look at other teams as being superior or better than us. We want to drop that historic underdog mentality and we want to see ourselves as equals.

“We want them to be chasing after our shirts.”