Football fans do not expect to see much in the way of finesse and glory when they watch an amateur match. Instead, they look forward to seeing the familiar faces of their players fighting passionately for the points. It is also highly uncommon for spectators to come across a player who, in all likelihood, will take part in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying in a few months’ time. Yet that is currently the case at German fourth-tier club SpVgg Unterhaching.
Stefan Marinovic plays in goal for the Hachinger and also for New Zealand's national team. The 24-year-old made his international debut for the Kiwis in a friendly against Korea Republic in March 2015, and has played in every match for his country in the subsequent 11 months. “It was amazing, back then I never expected to play straight away,” said the Auckland native in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, delighted to look back on his appearances in a New Zealand shirt. “Playing for your country is always something special.”
After rising through the youth ranks in his homeland, Marinovic left to pursue a professional career in Europe, ending up in the outskirts of Munich following a spell at Wehen-Wiesbaden. He had never been called up to the senior New Zealand side, so his first nomination came as something of a surprise. Head coach Anthony Hudson, who has been in charge since August 2014, is in the process of rebuilding the team and bringing through younger players. “The national association wants to look to the future,” said Marinovic. “The new coach has tried to create an image and to form a team that can work together for a number of years.” It is a strategy that suits the towering custodian perfectly.
Despite playing in a lower league in Germany, Marinovic was not overlooked by the national team and was first contacted by the goalkeeping coach several months before making his debut. “I didn’t expect to be selected straight away,” recalled the keeper. “They must have been taken with me and the videos they’d seen of me.” All of a sudden, everything happened very quickly: the call-up, a one-week training camp and then he was thrust straight into the starting line-up.
Just a year previously, Marinovic had almost quit the game after nothing came of trials at big clubs such as Everton, Schalke and Hamburg. His career was stagnating in Germany’s lower leagues with teams in the vicinity of Munich.
“There were times when I was about to give up on the idea of playing football,” said Marinovic, who has been in Germany for seven years. “I was struggling in the 1860 Munich reserves and at Ismaning. There were also times when I didn’t have a club. That’s when I started to wonder, because I was 22 or 23. It was time I earned a decent wage. Maybe it was time for a career change.” In July 2014 he moved to Unterhaching in southern Munich, where he was initially second-choice goalkeeper. Once his rival for the No1 jersey left the club, however, Marinovic stepped up immediately. “It was the last arrow in my quiver, but it hit the bullseye,” he said.
His consistent displays for the former Bundesliga club paved the way for his maiden outing with New Zealand. Did he make the most of his chance? “Yes, absolutely,” he said with a huge smile on his face. Indeed he did: the shot-stopper only conceded two goals in three matches, made countless good saves and even kept out a penalty against Korea Republic. That gave his self-confidence a massive boost, and it would continue to grow in the ensuing months.
Return to the international stage
Marinovic is anticipating further call-ups to the national side too. Asked what he can now do in Germany to keep convincing the coach to select him, he grinned: “I think I’ve already done quite a bit,” referring to his team’s displays in this season’s DFB Pokal. Unterhaching, an amateur side, managed to reach the third round of the competition, knocking out two clubs from the country’s top two divisions along the way. And Marinovic played no small part in their success.
Now he is ready for the next big challenges on the horizon: qualifying for both Russia 2018 and the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017. “At the moment everything I do is focused on that aim,” Marinovic said. “I want to be fully fit at the end of the season in order to fight for my place in those games. I want to be in goal.”
He is keen to return to the global stage after representing his country at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2011 in Colombia, where he also made his mark by saving a penalty. “It was the first time I’d ever played in front of over 30,000 spectators,” Marinovic said, fondly recalling the tournament where New Zealand narrowly missed out on a place in the knockout rounds. “That was new for me. It was like playing professional football. It was all like a dream.”
The goalkeeper is eager for similar experiences, yet there is one problem: Unterhaching play in a regional league, where there is no international break due to the aforementioned scarcity of international players. During his last call-up with New Zealand he even missed a league game, although his club are supportive in helping him fulfil his dream. “Unterhaching are really helpful,” he said. “They’re behind me. They would allow me to miss a league game, that’s something we’ve already agreed on.”
If all goes to plan, then, Unterhaching fans may occasionally have to do without their Antipodean international from this season.