Bay footballer’s Olympic dream

Nando Pijnaker.

Not many defenders in world football can claim to have stopped Erling Braut Haaland, but there is one Bay of Plenty youngster can lay claim to this accolade.

Considered one of world’s best young strikers, 20-year-old Haaland has been a goalscoring sensation for German side Borussia Dortmund since netting a 23-minute hat-trick on his debut in Janury 2020.

But Rotorua’s Nando Pijnaker helped shut out the forward as New Zealand defeated Norway 2-0 at the Under-20 World Cup in May 2019. Three days later, Haaland scored nine goals in one game as Norway hammered Honduras 12-0.

“At the time I remember getting told to watch out for him and was told he was worth $8 million,” Pijnaker jokes. “Although I would never have believed you if you’d told me he would be one of the best players in the world a year later.

“Looking back we joke about it sometimes, since he’s scoring so many goals for Dortmund. But he wasn’t able to score against New Zealand.”

Born in Brummen, a small town in Holland, Pijnaker moved with his family to New Zealand when he was three-years-old. The family settled in Rotorua where Pijnaker attended Kaharoa School.

“It was great growing up in Rotorua,” says Nando. “I lived out in the country in between farms, and went to a country primary school, so I was always outside playing with friends. There was always something to do.”

New Zealand was also the country where his father, René, cultivated his love of football. René was also a talented footballer before pursuing swimming at a national level in the Netherlands. Nando’s mother, Marianne, believes this, along with his grandmother, is where Nando got his sporting talent.

“His grandmother's 89 and still playing tennis and biking and doing weights at the gym,” says Marianne. “She's amazing, so we think it's a combination of the two.”

In 2012, Nando’s father had a full-sized goal built for him at their Rotorua property. As mum Marianne atests to, it still has pride of place in the paddock.

“My dad was the first one to get me into football, along with my friends from school,” says Nando. “From as young as I can remember I was kicking a ball around. It wasn’t always a football, but that was the one that stuck.”

From a young age, he began playing for Ngongotaha AFC, and it was there he got the chance to play in familiar orange – the famous colour that the Dutch national team play in. Nando admits he still keeps tabs on his old club.

“I still follow them on their social media platforms, and always want them to do well,” says the 21-year-old. “Whenever I go home to New Zealand, I go to the club for a kick around or training. There were many people and players that I looked up to and respected, so it always brings back good memories to go back.”

Soon enough, Nando’s talents were outgrowing the Rotorua area. Upon reading an article regarding current All Whites star and Te Puke native Ryan Thomas’ big move to Europe, Marianne enquired about the Olé Football Academy in Wellington.

The Porirua-based academy has developed some of New Zealand’s best footballing talent, including Thomas. Just two days into a one-week trial, the then 15-year-old Nando was on his way to the capital.

“It was the best thing we ever did,” says Marianne, “but it was a big step at the time and he was terrified. So were we.”

It was at Olé where Nando was transformed from a left-winger into a ball-playing centre-back under the coaching of former Mount Maunganui player Declan Edge and Ben Sippola, who Marianne describes as her son’s surrogate father during his Wellington days.

Spells playing first-team football with Western Suburbs and Eastern Suburbs followed before he made the jump to Europe in 2019, joining Declan at Swedish outfit Torslanda IK. From there, Nando had a brief spell with Swiss side Grasshopper before he made a big move last summer, joining Portuguese top-flight side Rio Ave.

Compared to the colder climates of Sweden and Switzerland, Portugal is much more similar to his Bay of Plenty upbringing, even if Covid-19 and the language barrier has proved something of a stumbling block.

“I’m enjoying it,” he says. “I live close to the beach, and the weather is usually pretty good. In a way it’s similar to New Zealand. But obviously with Covid and lockdown I haven’t had much of a chance to see much of Portugal yet.”

Nando has not been back to New Zealand since last June, after seeing out the worst of the 2020 Covid pandemic in Europe back in Rotorua. Calls back home are now a regular occurnce. Sadly, his father passed away in 2018, but his mum has tried her best to keep up to date with football. When Nando calls home, however, it appears football is far from his mind.

“I’ve had to step in and do my homework behind the scenes,” admits Marianne. “I rang Nando once and said: ‘oh, do you know about so-and-so?’ and he said: ‘Mum, I liked you more when you didn’t know anything about football’. He doesn't always want to talk about it.

“I think when he rings his mum he wants to talk about something else other than football.”

Being the globetrotter he’s become, Nando has acclimatised to life away from Aotearoa.

“I wouldn’t say that I get homesick nowadays. Back when I first moved out of home I was a little, but I’m used to it by now,” he says. “The first time I arrived in Portugal was difficult because it was the first time living in a country where I didn’t know anyone or speak the language, so that sure took some time to adjust to.”

Nando’s success has even garnered senior international recognition. In November 2019, he made his senior debut for the All Whites and now has his eye on an Olympic medal at the truncated games in Tokyo this year.

“It’s always a dream to play for your country. Ever since I was young I wanted to play for the All Whites, so being able to make my senior debut was special. I won’t forget that moment.

“Not many people can say they’ve gone to the Olympics, so to have a chance at going would be a great experience.”

Marianne is also hopeful Nando will play in Tokyo this summer, but overall she is just proud of her son for following his dream.

“I’m incredibly proud because by nature he’s quite shy – painfully shy actually,” she says. “It seems like football takes over and that’s just his love.

“I admire that. You give up everything to go to a strange country on the other side of the world, where they speak a language you don't know, and all without mates. I’m really proud of him.”

 

 

 

 

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