Struggles behind him, Rojas aims to spark All Whites
Marco Rojas will pull on his All Whites jumper and head out into the sun in Lautoka, Fiji tomorrow to try to get New Zealand a step closer to the next FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Unlike World Cup qualifiers in most confederations, it will not be a glamorous tie at Churchill Park. Crowds will be involved but limited, as will media coverage and in-depth analysis of the Fiji versus New Zealand Oceania qualifying clash.
Should the All Whites win, and seal the deal in the return leg in Wellington next Tuesday, an OFC Nations Cup final and an inter-confederation qualifier against a South American team stand between them and Russia.
Easier said than done, of course, but if the current All Whites do join the famed 1982 and 2010 squads in making it to Football’s big dance, Rojas is sure to play a massive role.
“[New Zealand manager] Anthony Hudson has been spoilt with the options he has in the attacking third – and Marco is an integral part of that,” former All Whites midfielder Harry Ngata told Newsroom.
“You’ve got guys like [PEC Zwolle winger] Ryan Thomas and [striker] Chris Wood, who is knocking in goals for fun for Leeds - but Marco is certainly a standout at the moment.”
Rojas came into All Whites camp this week off the back of a simply sensational season for the Melbourne Victory in the A-League.
The 25-year-old forward has scored 12 goals in 19 appearances for the Victory since last October - including nine in his last nine games - leading pundits across the Ditch to suggest he’ll be in line for the Johnny Warren medal presented to the A-League’s best player this year.
“His form for the Victory has been outstanding – it is as if he has never been away for the last two or three years,” Ngata says.
Rojas has been away since 2013 though, and - truth be told – it’s been a pretty ugly absence for the kid once over-hyped as the ‘Kiwi Messi’.
In that time, Rojas went from wining the Johnny Warren Medal, being scouted by the likes of Liverpool and signing a four-year contract to play for VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga to a first-team reject limping through loan spells in the Swiss and German lower leagues.
In Europe, he was branded as lazy.
“It’s good to be back – it’s good to be somewhere familiar again,” Rojas – who hails from Ngaruawhaia - says of his return to the Victory.
“That was probably the main thing in deciding to go back. I felt like I needed to have that familiarity and good feelings, so I could start trying to get back to where I was before.”
Melbourne reached out to him at the end of every season he was abroad to check on whether he was keen to return.
For the first two years, his answer was no. Last August, Rojas that changed.
“They knew that it had been up and down for me in Europe, so they were always asking,” he says.
“I hadn’t planned to come back this quickly, but once I did know – and had the mindset I was going to come back – there was only really one option.”
I witnessed Rojas’ European struggles first-hand. In 2014 I travelled to the German town of Furth to see whether New Zealand Football’s Next Big Thing was on track.
He wasn’t. He’d been banished to the stands by his loan club manager at Greuther Furth to watch the mid-week clash in the Bundesliga’s second tier.
Furth – a frigid southern German industrial town in the deeps of winter - was about as far from the good life of Melbourne as the Kiwi footballer could get.
Rojas told me he’d never come back to the A-League. His loan coach told me Rojas was too lazy to succeed in German football. It clearly wasn’t going to work out.
A few weeks later Gruether Furth punted him back to Stuttgart in disappointment. A loan spell to FC Thun in Switzerland was marginally better, but not by much.
The truth is that Rojas was both unlucky and lacking in the right kind of sensibility to succeed in Europe. After scoring on debut in a pre-season friendly for Stuttgart back in July 2013, everything went south. He broke a bone in his right foot, effectively writing off a year.
Constant changes in management at Stuttgart – the club had seven different managers during Rojas’ three-year spell in Europe - didn’t help. But, in the end, the Kiwi didn’t pull finger – and accepts that.
The lowest moment, Rojas says, came just before he and Stuttgart parted ways back in June with a year left on his contract.
“They told me I was going to be involved with the second team, most of the time,” he says.
“I’d never really trained with the first team, while I was there. That was probably, I suppose, rock bottom.
“The experience, and what I learnt about myself in those situations, that was important. Things happen for a reason.”
Rojas’ core personality hasn’t changed since his return to the A-League. He’s a reserved, albeit chatty young fella – but is firm about the increased maturity in his approach to football.
“Obviously I’m not happy [as] it didn’t work out, but I managed to deal with those situations and feel like I’ve become a better person and player,” he says.
“The funny thing is, I actually feel like I played some of my best football over there. I wasn’t as prolific in front of the goal as I was in Melbourne [the first time], but I think I’ve become a better player.”
Look beyond the goals and assists for the Victory this season, Ngata says, and you’ll see that Rojas is applying himself in ways he wasn’t back in 2013.
“He’s had some life experience now, and come across some hard times,” the 28-cap former international says.
“Marco left with his name in lights, and came against some hurdles – and the different nature of the game in Europe.
“I think it’s given him a bit of an insight into his own make-up and what he needs to do to get, and keep, himself fit and at your best as a player. I think you can see now that Marco sticks to those key fundamentals, and is not trying to be someone he’s not.”
Rojas is reflective – and hungry to play. Beyond the Fijian qualifiers, the All Whites have the Confederations Cup in Russia in June. There’s plenty of work to be done.
“They were difficult years in Europe, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy," Rojas says.
“I knew I was making a big step up to Stuttgart and in Switzerland as well. But I’m grateful for the experience – it was a good learning curve.
“I developed a lot – probably more mentally, than anything else. I’m in a good headspace, having learnt to deal with the professional experience in Europe. I’m just ready to play, again.”