Ex-Benfica junior Patafta now Lanexang United GM, targets A-League
In a crisp white shirt, with black suit and tie, the baby-faced general manager had a familiar look about him as he mingled with other Asian football bosses at last week's AFC draws at the Petaling Jaya Hilton.
At the age of just 28, Kaz Patafta might well have expected to be wearing yellow as part of Australia's ongoing 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying campaign. His former national junior teammates Robbie Kruse, Matt Spiranovic and Nathan Burns, also born in 1988, are key members of the current squad.
Instead, the one-time rising star of Benfica has swapped his boots for the equally unpredictable life of running a Southeast Asian football club.
Now officially retired as a professional player, Patafta is general manager of Laos champions Lanexang United. They will play in the 2017 AFC Cup, potentially against Singapore's Home United, who are expected to win their playoff, to join Yadanarbon FC of Myanmar and Vietnam's Than Quang Ninh in Group H.
"It's a passion of mine to get involved in management now. I've had the opportunity as GM of Lanexang," he told ESPN FC from the draw in Malaysia. "We're doing great things in Laos, and now we hope to showcase our talent on the Asian stage."
Depending on how you look at it, the Patafta story is either one of incredibly unfulfilled potential, or an unusually intelligent sportsman making a conscious choice for a different career path.
He came to Asia in 2015, initially with Thai third-tier club Khon Kaen United for a final crack at professional football after his domestic opportunities had dried up. Within a couple of months, he'd moved to Lanexang United, in Vientiane, the hometown of his mother.
The plan was for Patafta to be put on the fast track for naturalisation, and to spearhead Laos' World Cup qualifying campaign. But problems getting a Laos passport, and a diminishing desire to commit to the daily rigours on the training pitch, sent the Canberra native in a different direction.
Having earned his law degree from Bond University in 2014, and with a growing interest in the business side of sport, he was appointed Lanexang United GM in March.
"It just felt like the right step for me, and that I could make more of an impact club behind the scenes than on the field," he said. "The law degree helps out in this role, and I'm getting a lot of corporate experience, as well. I couldn't be happier with the position I'm in now."
And Patafta has plenty of work to do to help an ambitious club in the nation of 6.5 million people.
Laos' FIFA world ranking of 167th puts them only 33rd out of 46 active countries in Asia. They failed to qualify for the recent AFF Suzuki Cup, featuring Southeast Asia's top eight countries. And they made unwanted headlines last month when four national team players were provisionally suspended by the Asian Football Confederation for suspected match-fixing.
But Lanexang United, a relatively new club with Brazilian coach Leonardo Vitorino in charge, have a budget considerably bigger than salary cap-constrained Australian sides, and grand ambitions to make their mark on the regional stage.
Patafta's European, and even A-League exposure, can help take Lanexang to a higher level of professionalism, and, attract much-needed commercial support.
More than a decade has passed since a teenage Patafta was brought into Socceroos' camp in Germany by Guus Hiddink before the 2006 World Cup. Such was the high regard that the former Australia U17 captain was held in, he was given an unofficial cap in a practice match, alongside members of the so-called Golden Generation.
Having signed on with Portuguese giants Benfica earlier that year as a 17-year-old, it seemed only a matter of time before the technically gifted midfielder would be his country's first-choice playmaker.
But, despite the guidance of Jorge Mendes, the agent of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho, Patafta lost his way, after going on-loan to Melbourne Victory from Benfica for the 2007-08 season.
"They told me that if I went, my European career would be over, but I wanted to play regularly, and thought everything would be OK. I still wanted to go," he said. "Anderson signed with Porto on the same day that I joined Benfica. He stayed, and would move to Manchester United [where he played 181 games over five seasons]."
Patafta made only 47 appearances in the A-League with Melbourne Victory and the Newcastle Jets, spending more time on the bench. Although he did play a few games for semi-professional clubs Canberra FC and Sydney United, in addition to a handful of matches in Southeast Asia, he considers the Jets' 2010 exhibition match against David Beckham's LA Galaxy to be his last professional game.
"I don't regret anything. I would probably do it all again, exactly how it went. Playing in the A-League will help me if I am ever able to work there as an administrator," he said. "I'm very happy with the position I'm in now in Laos. It's taken a lot of hard work, and I see it all as part of the process.
"It definitely feels like home here. I'm enjoying my time in Southeast Asia. I hope to extend this time here, and I hope that we can have great success in Lanexang."
Although there's a school-prefect look about Patafta, he does speak with a maturity beyond his years, with a Croatian toughness to balance his Asian sensibilities. If he can make a success of a fledgling club in one of the world's developing economies, there's no limit to what he might achieve on the business side of football on his return to Australia.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.