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Benfica, Porto or Melbourne Victory? - Kaz Patafta's cautionary 'lonely wonderkid' tale

  • Kaz Patafta never reached the heights some expected, but he hopes his story enlightens young footballers to seek independent, expert advice.
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Modified 01 May 2020, 12:30 IST
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Kaz Patafta in 2006, training with Australia's World Cup squad ahead of the tournament

The career of a so-called 'wonderkid' in football sounds straightforward – you get spotted early on by a big club, your precocious skills see you establish yourself in the first team and then go on to enjoy an illustrious career at the top.

But we all know that, in reality, it doesn't quite work like that. Each situation is nuanced and, for every Kylian Mbappe there is a Kaz Patafta.

Australia's captain during the Under-17 World Cup in 2005, Patafta will be the first to say expectations were high for him after landing a three-year contract with Benfica as a teenager.

And, for what it's worth, his potential was even given 'video game approval', Championship Manager 2007 ranking him similarly to Gareth Bale after he'd trained with Guus Hiddink's pre-2006 World Cup squad.

But Patafta's career in professional football ended at age 22 having never played a top-flight European match in a rueful case of what might have been.

'I was told I'd have a very similar path to Anderson'

He joined Benfica in January 2006 in a move that also involved Jorge Mendes' Gestifute agency. It was the same week future Brazil and Manchester United midfielder Anderson, signed to the same agents, joined Porto.

"When I arrived in Portugal I was told I'd have a very similar path to Anderson, or to the extent I was basically informed where I'd end up, and at the same time where Anderson would end up. One of us ended up where we should have," he recalls to Stats Perform with a grin. "It's all history now so I'm happy to disclose it - the conversations were around a move to Chelsea [eventually]."

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For Patafta, talent clearly wasn't an issue, neither was the pressure of being painted as the face of Australia's 'Next Generation'. "Honestly, I think I handled it quite well – and there was no Twitter or Instagram. What the media depicted – it was probably good for football at that time, to start to look at who were the next generation were."

Life with Benfica certainly began well – he was doing the business on the pitch in an effort to reach the first team and often mingling with the stars of the senior side. "David Luiz is the one that sticks out, but I played with great players. Simao Sabrosa was my favourite by far, Nuno Gomes was unbelievable, it was a great time."

The cost of humility?

But for Patafta, in hindsight it was his respect for these players that highlighted an issue. "Simao would joke and get me to take his lunch back and I'd do it, it being Simao, but at the end of the day out on the park, I always thought I was better than him," he said with a laugh, knowing full well he was speaking of a Portugal international and the club's then-captain.

"That's the mindset you need as a young kid. If I had a bit more of that character behind me, I probably wouldn't have accepted some of the other things that happened in my career. After the fact, in reflection, a lot of people have said I was too nice."

That humble nature was prevalent again when, after a solid first year in Portugal, Patafta returned to Australia on loan with Melbourne Victory – a move Benfica and Gestifute were vehemently against.

"A lot of the players with the big ego, they're the ones who really shine, players who completely back themselves. I'm on loan from Benfica, my first day back, I was the kind of kid picking up balls and cones, and it's not because they asked me to, that was just where I came from, but I was probably slightly beyond that, and then I wasn't playing and kind of accepted it, copped it on the chin."

'I was left to make pretty big commercial decisions without experience'

Although when weighing up his options the idea of first-team football in Melbourne was tantalising, it was a loan Patafta never should have accepted, according to the club and his agents. But in moments like these, he feels he lacked a vital component all young players should have – experienced support.

"It's critical," he says. "It's a ruthless business and only the strongest get to the top, and as far as I was concerned, I did that and at times on my own. I was left to make pretty big commercial decisions without that experience at a very young age – a 17-year-old having to discuss terms with European clubs or agents, it does become a little daunting.

"And it's not someone like [at] Gestifute, because at the end of the day they're looking after a lot of players and business interests, and don't have the time to look after every single young player they've got. But it's invaluable to have – especially as a young player – independent people that can be a support network, that aren't in it for any other reason except that they're genuinely interested in being able to advise players based on their experience.

"It's probably something the unions or federations can look at in terms of an independent advisor that has the players' interests at heart."

'A defining moment' as Porto offer arrives

Had such a person been there for Patafta, things may have turned out significantly differently, as just two days before he was due to set out for first-team football on loan at Victory in 2007, another offer arrived.

"The weekend before I played against Porto and a few days later an offer surfaced [from Porto], a five-year deal," he explains. "But I had agreed in principle to join Victory and, the character I had, I was going to follow through with it. It really needed someone to sit down and assess the options - have I made a legal commitment to Victory yet? Am I legally bound to the club?

"As an 18-year-old, I wasn't in a position to have those conversations with Victory, Porto or Benfica, but that was my reality. It was just me. That's what is really important for young players – some have a really good run and things fall into place, having those advisors come into play. And it's no discredit to my family or the people around me at the time, it was just that we hadn't been in that scenario. There was a critical moment of choosing the next best move. That was a defining moment."

Patafta returned to Australia and, as Benfica and Gestifute warned, his career in Europe was over before it had even really begun. In retrospect he acknowledges the Porto offer was a "no-brainer", but in the absence of expert advice beyond an agency with a vested interest and family lacking experience in such matters, he was left to formulate his own strategy. The immediacy of first-team football won the argument.

He insists he has no regrets, however. Patafta looks back with pride on the fact he managed to represent Benfica's first-team in a friendly, and he's now doing extremely well for himself, running a law firm in Singapore and in the process of launching an investment fund that will help finance Europe's biggest football clubs. Neither achievement would have been possible without that conscious decision to retire early.

But for other young talents perhaps also lacking ego or without the means to land on their feet should their career not go to plan, he hopes his experience can inspire a desire to seek independent expert advice and embrace a hint of arrogance.

Published 01 May 2020, 12:30 IST
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