Tamati Williams had a busy night in Yokohama. The Auckland City goalkeeper repelled wave after wave of attack from Japanese champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s ruthless strikers, batting away crosses and shots from point-blank range, amid a wide array of attacking play from the home side.
Williams’ exertions kept the Oceania part-timers alive and in the game, as they say, against far superior opposition. “It’s bittersweet for me,” said Williams, 28 years old - tall, lean and athletic. “I was happy with the way I played,” he said, before adding, wistfully, under his breath: “except for the goal.”
It was the only goal of the match and it came just seconds after Williams, whose save-count ran into double digits on the cold night in Yokohama, pulled off a fabulous double-stop to deny Koji Morisaki and then Yojiro Takahagi. Williams’ team-mate Andrew Milne accurately described the goal, scored by Toshihiro Aoyama, “a wonder-strike, unstoppable.” It flew up and over Williams’ head, into the top corner. If the keeper was a few feet too far off his line, it was his only mistake on the night.
“He was fantastic,” said City’s Spanish-born coach Ramon Tribulietx. The Spaniard controversially benched Jacob Spoonley, City’s outstanding No1 from last year’s Club World Cup, in favour of recent recruit Tamati. “He rescued us more than a few times.”
Auckland captain, the 36-year-old Ivan Vicelich, who had a long professional career in the Dutch top flight, was equally effusive in his praise of his goalkeeper. “He pulled off some spectacular saves out there, and that’s what it takes when you’re the underdog, you need players to step up and put in big performances,” said New Zealand’s most-capped player, who lined up in New Zealand’s undefeated run at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa. “Tamati really kept us in the game out there.”
Model, footballer, veterinarian?
Thursday night wasn’t Williams’ first time in the spotlight – not by a long measure. He spent his early twenties as a fashion model, travelling the world. “I lived in Milan, Paris and New York. I was all over the place for modelling gigs. I loved it,” he said. “But it meant I had to put football on the back burner a bit, and that was hard.”
Now, though, Williams is back and focusing on his football. “I started to get back into the game recently and focus more on it,” said the goalkeeper. “So it’s the modelling that’s now on the back burner. I’m a part of what Auckland City is trying to do and I couldn’t be happier.”
He admits that he would entertain offers from professional clubs, perhaps tempting him abroad again, away from Auckland’s relaxed environs for reasons of football this time, rather than modelling. “If something like that happened, that’d be great…but I really want to be a veterinarian,” he adds, almost nonchalantly, “I’m in school studying biological sciences, so I can hopefully make that a reality. I guess you could say I have a lot of things going on at the moment,” he added, with a coy smile and the carefree laugh of a man with many, many options.
Williams and his teammates need to focus on the current domestic campaign though. If the veterans of four FIFA Club World Cups want to return to the tournament next year in Morocco, they need to firstly take the honours in New Zealand’s all-amateur top flight.
“Here we are playing in a stadium where a World Cup Final was played, against the Japanese champions in front of 25,000 fans,” Williams said, hanging on to memories of that brightly lit stage. “Now, in a few days we have to go to play Manawatu on their bumpy pitch. I mean no disrespect to Manawatu, but they are weak, and it sure is quite a contrast.”
The tall keeper was the last man through the mixed zone after the match, Auckland’s first and last of the 2012 Club World Cup. After a shake of the hand and a smile, he drifted through the quiet belly of the Yokohama-International stadium and off, past the cameramen packing their equipment and the Japanese journalists typing away fervently about the triumphant men from Hiroshima.