This piece first appeared on The Roar, Australia’s leading sports opinion website where you can read vibrant takes on football, Aussie Rules football, cricket, rugby, and other sports.
Nestled in the heart of Bavaria, within the fork of the Rednitz and Pegnitz rivers, the tiny German town of Fürth stands proud and defiant in an age where big cities rule the football world.
Pint-sized but with a lot of punch, Fürth has a rich history dating back more than 1000 years, though is constantly cast under the shadow of its larger and more vociferous neighbour, Nürnberg.
The town’s football team, now named SpVgg Greuther Fürth, has been largely a second division side for the past 20 years, but did experience a brief taste of Bundesliga football two years back.
It’s a fitting temporary home for the similarly pint-sized Marco Rojas, who hails from the city of Hamilton in New Zealand. Like Fürth, Rojas packs a bigger punch than his size suggests when it comes to the football field.
Walking into the club’s training ground, just a year old, immaculate, splashed with the green and white of the club and emblazoned with the Shamrock emblem of the city, it’s clear this is a club striving for recognition.
Rojas is here on a year-long loan from VfB Stuttgart, after an injury-plagued first season with the Bundesliga club, and is determined to make his European dream a success.
“It’s very different [from Stuttgart],” Rojas says with a subtle grin.
“It’s very relaxing, Fürth is nice and small and for me it’s okay. I’ve come here to play football.”
Playing football has been a tough slog for the five-foot, six dynamo since moving to Europe. Rojas arrived in Germany to much fanfare, following a blistering 2012-13 campaign in the A-League with Melbourne Victory.
Together with Archie Thompson he formed a devastating forward line, scoring a league high 15 goals and laying on eight assists, thriving off Ange Postecoglou’s vibrant attacking system.
The prestigious Johnny Warren medal followed, together with the chance of a lifetime to secure a move to one of the most competitive leagues in the world.
“It was a no brainer for me,” Rojas reminisces of his decision to sign with Stuttgart.
“Everyone knows the German league is a strong league and it’s a good league for young players to develop.
“I felt if I came here I could [grow as a footballer].”
Unfortunately, the dream has suffered a faltering launch. It all started so brightly, too, with Rojas scoring in his first preseason friendly with Stuttgart.
After the match, however, it was revealed that he’d fractured a bone in his right foot. Further niggling injuries, including a problem with his knee, saw Rojas sat mainly on the treatment table up until April this year.
He made a few appearances for Stuttgart’s reserve side, but wasn’t risked in the first team as they flirted with relegation.
“It wasn’t how I’d pictured it when I first signed,” Rojas laments.
“It’s made it difficult but I still think I can fight back from that and do well and hopefully I can show that.”
His clear determination and fight is apparent, and despite the just turned 23-year-old’s modest nature, Rojas appears adamant he can succeed in Germany, and has no qualms leaving the A-League so early in his career.
A-League fans are often quick to strike down youngsters who jet off to Europe at a young age and struggle to break into first team football. They bemoan players leaving ‘too soon’ and often call for them to come back home.
But Rojas’ predicament is not a case of leaving too soon; he wasn’t dubbed the Kiwi Messi for nothing. Displaying lightning pace, a deft first touch and intelligent movement, Rojas terrorised A-League defences in his final season. He was always destined for a bigger stage.
And given his injury woes, it’s understandable that Rojas has so far failed to match his own high expectations. Even if he’d remained in Australia, he would have been available for just nine A-League matches – hardly a reason to stick around.
The top two divisions of German football are highly competitive, and brimming with talent from around the world. Rojas has been exposed to the highest quality training facilities, coaches, mentors and competition.
For A-League fans to criticise the lack of playing time, smacks of disrespect, as well as a lack of understanding personal circumstance. Youngsters like Rojas uproot their lives to follow their dreams. Not many ordinary people can say they’ve taken similar risks in their profession.
Rojas has come to a country where he doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t have a support network and has no guarantee that it’s going to pan out. He only has his feet to do the talking, and when injuries hit, that becomes a tough slog.
“The Australian league is very good, but Europe is the top,” Rojas explains.
“It’s where you want to be. When you’re training with these types of players every day you become a better player.
“Even though I haven’t had the chance to play full games yet, just on the training side of things I feel I’ve become a better footballer than what I was in Australia.
“I could have stayed [in the A-League] longer but I’ve always wanted to push myself and strive to achieve as high as I can.
“That’s why I came over, that’s why any [Australian or Kiwi] comes over.”
The journey for Rojas has been a strange one. After seeking trials in Germany at a young age – spending time with SV Werder Bremen, Hannover 96 and Borussia Mönchengladbach– Rojas was awarded a Yellow Fever scholarship to train with Wellington Phoenix. He debuted at just 17.
“I had hung around New Zealand because I wanted to finish my schooling,” Rojas says.
“Lucky enough the Yellow Fever scholarship came and it just took off from there. It was a bit of a different way to come in but I’m happy that I got to start it in New Zealand.”
It was a childhood ambition fulfilled for the fresh-faced school kid, who had football running through his veins from an early age due to his Chilean heritage.
“My father is from Chile – so half of my family are football mad and the other half are now slowly catching up,” Rojas says.
“I had football around me all the time when I was younger, and my family say they always wanted a professional footballer.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Rojas spent two years at Wellington, a place where “there will always be good memories”. But the ambitious Kiwi drew the ire of many fans when he decided to reject a new contract in favour of a move to Victory. It was a tough decision, but one that has ultimately paid off.
“It’s always been about developing myself as a footballer and as a person and I just felt that Melbourne was the right move. Though it was hard to leave the Phoenix.
“But for me it was the right thing to do, and luckily it panned out.”
While the move worked out in terms of securing a four-year deal with Stuttgart, now comes the next challenge of cementing a first team position. Rojas’ decision to drop down to join Fürth was in a bid to get more game time after his horrific run of injuries.
There is a large focus on youth at Fürth, with promotion from the academy common place. It means Rojas is up against it to prove himself at the club, and he has had to make do with just a few cameo appearances off the bench and a couple of reserve outings so far this season.
“It’s been alright, but with new teammates and a new club it was hard at the start.”
“It still hasn’t gone as well as I’d hoped, with game time and that, but outside of that I’ve met some good people and enjoyed my time here.”
Located in the depths of Frankenland, Fürth’s training grounds are surrounded by picturesque forests and lie just minutes from the club’s boutique Sportplatz Ronhof, which holds 18,000.
In the city centre, Christmas lights are starting to adorn the beautiful 17th and 18th century houses, each with their own unique design, and the sweet smell of Glühwein will soon envelop the small streets once the festive markets kick-off.
Rojas lives here with his Kiwi girlfriend, who is on a one-year student Visa, and as he says, “you don’t worry about much in Germany”. Both are fervently taking German lessons, another sign that Rojas is not only resolute about making this move work on the pitch, but off the pitch as well.
At times he falters with his English, a language he has momentarily put to one side in pursuit of success. When he rattles off names such as Gui Finkler and Marcos Flores, his Chilean heritage shines through – Rojas is also an accomplished Spanish speaker.
“Even if my German sounds rubbish and someone starts talking to me in English, I’ve just got to carry on in German,” Rojas says.
“At least I can talk to people, I can keep conversations and live. But my family are never too far away, they come about twice a year. It’s important to have people around you.”
Fürth used to be a powerhouse back in the 1920s, and at one stage boasted one half of the German national team. But it hasn’t been a smooth start this season for Die Kleeblätter (the Shamrocks). Frank Kramer’s team sits in ninth on the 2. Bundesliga table, but they’re still only five points off a promotion place.
For now, after the glut of injuries, Rojas is gearing towards increasing his playing time, and is content to put his long-term future to one side. Stuttgart can wait, and there’s no doubt he can offer Fürth an extra dimension in attack.
“My body feels good. I can start pushing this year and nothing’s stopping me from playing and training,” he says.
“It’s me that has to do the talking on the pitch. If I can do that then hopefully I can leave [Kramer] with no choice.”
It’s clear that despite his unassuming and humble nature, Rojas has the burning desire and belief in his own abilities. Success in football takes patience, sacrifice and hard work, but talent is also a necessity. There’s no denying Rojas has bundles of that.
“The loan contract is until the end of the season, and that’s what I’m concentrating on now,” he says.
“After that I can focus on something else, but for now it’s about Fürth.”
A pint-sized town for a similarly-built man, you get a feeling this is just the beginning of the start for this multilingual Kiwi, and pushing Fürth into the Bundesliga could be Rojas’ first point of call.
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