An Australian defender who epitomizes the type of work ethic required when chasing your dreams was kind enough to share his story with us. In his own words, Ante Bakmaz takes us through the highs and lows that many footballers go through slogging it out in the lower leagues at home or abroad. The player that former coach David Perkovic described as, “quite an elegant player, technically very good” and “extremely dedicated to his game, a hard worker” continues to chase his dream of being a professional footballer. Here is his story:
I grew up in Western Sydney to Croatian parents. I began playing football because my cousin Anthony Seric was playing. I always went to watch Sydney United back in the NSL days and I would say that when I was young they were the reasons I played football. I remember watching Sterjovski, Cardozo, Carle, Emerton, Jedinak and all the great teams like South, Marconi, and Olympic. Ever since these young days all I wanted to do was play football for a living, even when I was 7/8 years old. I was football mad. I remember staying up to watch the Premier League highlights on SBS on Monday nights and of course Serie A with Tony Palumbo on the Sunday morning.
I began playing for my local team Greystanes but I think things got more serious when I joined Sydney United when I was 13, APIA when I was 14, Fraser Park at 15 and then Granville Rage where I spent a good 3/4 years.
Granville really gave me a chance to play senior football. I actually played with and was really good friends with Kwabena Appiah Kubi. We used to sit on the bench together in the early period. I was fortunate Mauricio Islas and Vic Zappia (Granville) really pushed me and I began to play first grade when I was 17. During my time at Granville I spent a good 3-4 months at Croatian first division side NK Zagreb training with the U 19s.
I probably learnt more in that period than I have in my whole life. The club wanted to take me on until the summer as I was training there during winter but I had no Croatian documents. I went back again the next winter and made a great impression on the technical staff and was asked to return again in the summer to begin training with the first team. That season was 2012 where I joined David Perkovic at Fraser Park and was really heavily injured so basically that dream vanished so too many other chances.
After that season my whole body was hurting. I took the phrase “hard work” too literally and had achilles, groin, back, knee injuries and constantly considered giving up. But when I realised how much time, work and how many people said I couldn’t go on to play football at a high level. This was not a reason to stop.
I had a great physio who got me in top form because I had already decided that after I finished my degree (I was studying Exercise Sport Science at uni) I would be returning to play in Croatia. Tony Basha, who had a lot of faith in me, took me under his wing and worked intensively with me in the mornings/afternoons/evenings and basically gave me the chance to play as many games as I could for his Rydalmere side before I left.
When I arrived in Croatia I noticed the whole staff at NK Zagreb were completely different as they were under great financial trouble. I ended up calling many clubs and received a reply from NK Spansko in the third tier. After trialing there they basically said I would be signed as a backup player. I remember coming home crying thinking I was not good enough to play. I decided to keep contacting clubs until I managed to sign with a struggling old powerhouse NK Tresnjevka where I basically played for free.
I remember we had no money and we even came to training with no hot water and at one stage no electricity. The club was so tight on money they couldn’t even pay the groundsman who was on less than a minimum wage which is peanuts. But I did not care because I knew I was playing, getting fitter becoming a much better footballer. During the winter break I spoke with many “agents, liasons” basically promising me trials, deals but really was it just a big load of rubbish. I ended up joining NK Laduc who were a strongly passionate side from a village near the Slovenian border.
My Croatia experience was a huge sacrifice. I left my parents and family. I was earning very very very little money, at most stages I didn’t earn a thing. The coaching was extremely negative. I remember many times playing away games and just making no attempt to attack. It was like basketball when one team attacks the other sits back and defends. But in saying that I learnt a lot about defensive organisation and the need to be disciplined when either holding the nil nil or defending to win the game. Something which is not applauded enough in modern football
I knew my time in Croatia was over, I just felt I was stuck in the lower league struggle. So when the chance to join FC Chabab in the Netherlands came I jumped at it. Chabab was a whole different ball game. Pressing, attacking, positive football. I was coached by Alami Ahannach who was the assistant coach of SC Telstar. Our team had many youth internationals for both Holland and Morocco. All the players finished their football education at either Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Sparta Rotterdam, NAC Breda, ADO Den Haag, FC Volendam compared to me at Granville Rage. Many players also played in the top tiers of Dutch football so in terms of quality it was high. I played against guys who had played Champions League, in World Cups, and played in the worlds biggest clubs, it was crazy. In Australia I was playing against a completely different calibre of player.
Chabab were another financially struggling club so there were also times when I was not getting paid. The club had huge debts, we rotated between three home grounds. Many players began to strike and miss training until the money was present. There were times when we would train once a week with only 10 or so players.
I initially struggled with adjusting to the Dutch refereeing and was sent off twice. The last one was three games before the winter break and because a direct red card is a four game suspension I missed a good three months of football. But it’s fair to say after this suspension everything started to fall in place, like a blessing in disguise. I was playing and performing regularly, I trialed at SC Telstar, I ended up being asked to sign a professional contract with FK Igman Konjic in Bosnia and began attracting interest from a few people in Holland. I started growing as a player, began scoring goals (even as a centre back) and was eventually approached by Ajax third team’s manager who wanted to have a closer look at me.
I impressed enough for us to agree terms for the 2015/2016 season. I am now an employee of AFC Ajax. I now train at one of the best football camps in the world, de Toekomst. I see all the big names like de Boer, Van der Sar, Overmars (who signed my contract) driving the flashy cars. It’s a normal thing to see Heitinga, Veltman, Cilessen just chill out but surreal because I always used to see them on TV.
Everything I have achieved I think is due to my work ethic, grit and determination and I don’t think there is anything else to it. Training when no one else trains, using any day off as a chance to do more work. I used to train after training because I felt I was so fit at some stages normal training just would not make me tired. It was just hard work and never never giving up. Yes, it’s a cliche, but its so true.
So many kids back home don’t realise you have to be better than what they’ve got over here. Kids back home have it all, here it’s football or nothing so people aren’t going to treat you nice when they know you are going for their spot. You have to want it 100% because anything less you start to lose sight of what you want (for me it was professional football). Even 99% leaves you vulnerable. You start to miss your parents, friends, weather; you stop trying as hard, you start to party and put less effort into football than you should.
I definitely did it the hard way. I got rejected so many times as a kid and by mediocre club sides too. No academies, no institues, no state teams, no european tours. I did it the hard way in the most unfashionable way but where there is a will there is a way and look now I have a working contract with Ajax Amsterdam.