Mario Bilen’s official player profile states he stands at 190 centimetres, a shade under skipper Ivan Vicelich. Whatever the exact figure, one thing is for certain; Bilen cuts an imposing figure in the backline.
A gentle giant, Bilen, who has plied his trade as a professional footballer in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania before making the switch to New Zealand, is also a former Croatia youth international.
Still relatively new at Auckland City, Bilen's early showings suggests the former NK Slaven Belupo central defender is the real deal and could be a massive boost for Auckland City in their FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 campaign.
Bilen says the decision to leave Croatia for New Zealand was straight forward. "New Zealand is a beautiful country, it has nice beaches and is very clean and green,” Bilen told FIFA.com. “It rains a lot in winter but the summer is coming, so my wife Dragana is feeling better about this. Additionally, Auckland City is also a very family orientated club and everyone is always willing to help you.”
His experiences in Albanian football show that the glamorous side of the European professional game is sometimes not as glamorous or glitzy as many may believe. "In Albania and Croatia, sometimes you do not have the same infrastructure as in New Zealand. The pitches, the training facilities, sometimes these are not to the same level as here.”
Bilen arrived in the Land of the Long White Cloud back in March, just as the club embarked on its defence of the OFC Champions League. Auckland's secured their third Oceania title in a row, and fifth overall, with a 2-1 win over cross-town rivals Waitakere United in the final to qualify for Morocco 2013.
"I don't know much about Morocco, But I have watched Raja Casablanca before, mainly on YouTube in their friendly match with Barcelona,” said Bilen of Auckland City’s opponents in the tournament opener."
Casablanca suffered a heavy defeat in that game, but Bilen doesn't read too much into the result against one of the former FIFA Club World Cup champions.
"Raja Casablanca are champions of Morocco for a reason, they have many good players and must be a good team,” Bilen said. “I am looking forward to the game but I must admit I do not know very much about the culture of Morocco.”
Bilen's stay in Auckland got even better when the Navy Blues won their first domestic trophy of the new season with a 4-1 defeat of arch-rivals Waitakere United in the ASB Charity Cup final.
It’s a long way from Bilen lining up with Luka Modric in his junior years. "I played with Luka Modric and I know he's the perfect player," Bilen said. "But Mandzukic, the way he plays for Bayern Munich, he is my hero."
"Croatia has very good players, very good teams - everyone around the world knows about Croatia's footballers,” he said. “But other things are not great in some parts of Europe, the facilities, maybe - everything in New Zealand is better.
“New Zealand has a lot going for it. New Zealand feels like a home, for now it’s perfect."