Why would anyone give up a glamorous, globe-trotting career in modelling to share a car with six team-mates for twice-weekly training sessions in one of football’s more remote outposts? That was the question Tamati Williams could have been excused for asking himself back in 2005, when, at the age of 21, he decided to turn his back on the world’s fashion runways to pursue his dream of making it between the posts.
The answer was never clearer than on a chilly December night in Rabat nine years later, when the former model helped book Auckland City a place in the last eight of the FIFA Club World Cup for only the second time by defying Moghreb Tetouan in a penalty shootout in the opening match of Morocco 2014.
“It’s very special to be involved in things like this,” Williams told FIFA.com after he and his team-mates celebrated Auckland’s 4-3 shootout win, which came after a goalless draw. “We were dancing in the dressing room, singing our team songs and hugging each other. There were a few tears shed too. There was no alcohol, though. We’ve got a game on Saturday.”
That match will be against African champions ES Setif in the quarter-finals, a stage that Williams was always confident his side could reach.
“We drew against Uzbekistan in a warm-up match and that made us feel we had a chance,” he explained. “We all used it to motivate ourselves: the first-choice players, the subs and the coaching staff. And we gave everything we had, regardless of whether we were playing well or not. That’s what you have to do as a team in a match like this, especially against a side who are better than us on paper.”
His save to deny Ahmed Jahouh, Moghreb Tetouan’s first penalty-taker, proved to be decisive, if a little unexpected.
“It’s only the second penalty shoot-out I’ve been involved in,” revealed the hero of the hour. “The first was when I was 16, at school. And we won then too, though I think there were a few more people watching this time around.”
Despite proving his side’s saviour, the smiling Williams reproached himself for not adding to his penalty-save count: “I’m a bit disappointed because I missed a couple. I could have stopped three.”
Gloves and fashion
The keeper’s first name means “Thomas” in Maori, prompting him to joke: “I’d love it to mean “big, strong tree” or something like that, but it’s just ‘Thomas’.”
Plain old Tamati has been in love with goalkeeping all his life. A New Zealand youth international from the U-16 side all the way up to the U-23s, he formed part of the senior squad that missed out on qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
In the meantime, an alternative career opened up to him, thanks to his good looks.
“I was in the national team and the opportunity just came up,” he said of his move into modelling, which saw him travel the world for 18 months.
A life spent in Paris, London, New York and the world’s other fashion hotspots might appeal to many, but not to this football-loving model: “It wasn’t a great time for me. I grew tired of it, packing and unpacking a suitcase all the time. I was never in love with modelling. It’s sport that I love.”
He decided to return to New Zealand, to Waikato FC. And while he continued to flirt with a career in modelling, football won through in the end. An admirer of Gianluigi Buffon and a biology student to boot, he joined Auckland City, winning three OFC Champions League titles and a New Zealand league championship with them to date.
On Saturday comes another opportunity for the keeper to shine, one he is already looking forward to: “Unexpected wins make football what it is, and we got one today. We’ll have to wait and see how we recover from this, but I hope we can pull it off again.”