Patafta is back
At 24 the pin-up boy of the snoberatti is taking his first tentative steps towards a comeback in his hometown with Canberra FC.
A 'cause célèbre' is Kaz Patafta. For so long the pin-up boy of the snoberatti, a player seen as a prototype for the sort of football nation we wish to become. A big player in a small package - deft touch, clever angles with his passing, a sweet left foot to remedy our game's recurring weakness with the dead ball.
Technique above toil, that was what so many saw in Patafta, and at one stage he threatened to deliver. Famously on the books of Benfica at school age, lauded by the FIFA Technical Study Group after the 2005 World Youth Championships, when they said this about him: ''Technically adept, good understanding and overview of play.'' Rare words from the Zurich gnomes, who seem to have typeset the words 'physically strong' and 'Australia' in the same sentence for eternity. Nonetheless, there was little doubt that Patafta played the game the way we all like to see it played, and we invested such hope in him.
Too much hope, as it turned out. In 2007 Patafta came home to the Hyundai A-League after failing to crack the first team in Lisbon, and continued to struggle for game time - firstly at Melbourne Victory and then at Newcastle Jets. Coaches saw the ease in which he was knocked off the ball, and the sort of work he did off it, as fatal flaws. By his own admission, his career had hit a stalemate and two years ago he'd had enough. One of our brightest stars had burned himself out. Or so it seemed.
But here's the good news. Patafta is back. Still young at 24, and taking the first tentative steps towards a comeback in his hometown with Canberra FC - recently crowned ACT minor premiers for the 21st time. On the horizon, he's got the inaugural NPL play-offs to look forward to.
A 'new phase', is how Patafta describes this second chance. One in which he has learned his lessons from the past, and heads into a future with more confidence, more belief, and perhaps more of a sense of purpose.
First up, it's instructive that he's prepared to discuss where his mind is at. From where I sat, there were moments when he seemed to be crushed by the weight of expectation. Loved to death, effectively. By the fans, and the media. So you'd imagine he'd rather his comeback stayed under the radar in order to keep the heat from coming to a boil.
But Kaz version:2 seems wiser, stronger, and tougher, than he used to be. ''In hindsight, I can try to justify a lot of things, but at the end of the day it was my decision to stop, no-one else's,'' he says. ''It might have seemed like it came out of the blue, but I actually took a long time to come to the decision. It was difficult, but I felt I needed to try and make a future for myself.''
That he has. Away from the pitch. Patafta left the Jets to study law, and - amazingly - it's taken him just two years to complete his degree. 'Accelerated learning' is the official description. A surefire path to insomnia is how I see it. He credits the disciplines he developed as a footballer for getting him through the late nights.
Either way, he's due to be admitted in six months, and has already been offered a graduate's position in Sydney. A safety net is in place, but he's not ready to use it.
''I never lost the passion, I never lost the love, for the game,'' he says. ''So the first thing I had to recognise was whether I still wanted it. I did. I do. I'd have hated to leave the game in those circumstances. I believe there's more left in me as a footballer, and I love a challenge.''
So what started out as an offer to make a guest appearance for Canberra FC in a friendly match has evolved into a regular position in their starting eleven. The next step is get back to a professional level, Hyundai A-League or otherwise. A player with Laotian heritage is not adverse to the idea of resurrecting his career in Asia.
Before then, there's the hard yards at 'The Stockade', his 'House of Pain' in the Canberra suburb of Dickson. It's a gymnasium owned and run by former Socceroo Andrew Bernal - like Patafta, a proud Canberrian. As a kid, Patafta idolised Bernal, and he's not embarrassed to admit it.
These days, on closer inspection, he sees the drive which took Bernal out of his comfort zone and into a successful career in England (with Ipswich Town and Reading) as something that may have been missing from his own make-up. ''It's not just about pumping weights when you go to Andy, it's as much mental as it is physical,'' says Patafta. ''Running up a hill, for instance, may not seem to mean much, but with Andy it's about testing yourself, every day. I'm happy to put my trust, my faith, in Andy. The biggest thing he gives me is motivation.''
It's a climb famously scaled by Tom Rogic a few years ago, while in the recent past the likes of AIS graduates Ryan Edwards, Scott Galloway, Steven Lustica and Cameron Edwards have also pushed themselves through their mental barriers at 'The Stockade'. Clearly, Bernal has the aura, and the smarts, to rejuvenate careers. With any luck Patafta could become his greatest achievement yet.
As for Patafta, if you ask him if he feels hard done by the way things have worked out, he's quick to reply: ''Not at all'.
Clever boy is Kaz. Even better, he's in the safe hands.