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‘At the end of the day, football is a much bigger sport than rugby’ – The New Zealander who took the road to Sligo


Max Mata of Sligo Rovers in action against Nathan Peate of Bala Town. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Max Mata of Sligo Rovers in action against Nathan Peate of Bala Town. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Max Mata of Sligo Rovers in action against Nathan Peate of Bala Town. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

As a New Zealander in Ireland, Max Mata is accustomed to people bringing up rugby with him, a conversation starter that has ramped up across the last month. They do not realise they are sending their comments in the wrong direction.

It’s not that the Auckland native is ignorant about the game his country is synonymous with. He enjoyed playing it as a youngster and he has friends making their way in the business; school pal Tamaiti Williams was in action for the Maori All Blacks against Ireland last week, while another peer, Caleb Clarke, is an up-and-coming talent with All Blacks caps under his belt.

But the Sligo Rovers striker honestly admits that the oval ball sport does nothing for him. Tuning into events at home over the past three weekends wouldn’t have crossed his mind.

“I’ve never really found it that interesting to watch,” shrugs the 22-year-old. “It’s bad. I should be. And when I go home and I’m with a bunch of my mates, they’ll say ‘the rugby is on, come over, let’s have a barbecue’ and then we go over and get into it and it’s good fun.

“But I’m not sitting at home myself here thinking, ‘do you know what, I’m going to go out of my way and watch the rugby’.

How did he end up feeling this way? His older brother, Ben, led the way for the family and Max caught the bug.

“It was so much fun we had no reason to make the switch to rugby,” he explains. “I’m happy we never did. I wouldn’t say there was pressure to play but, of course, friends and stuff...Years ago a very small percentage of kids was playing, people would make fun of you but I didn’t care because it was so much fun,” he continues, before breaking into a smile.

“And, at the end of the day, football is a much bigger sport than rugby.”

Mata is trying to explore the globe with it. He left home three years ago to join Grasshoppers of Zurich, a stint punctuated by a goalscoring loan with Nomme Kalju of Estonia before he tried his luck in America with Utah based USL side Real Monarchs.

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Sligo emerged as a loan option earlier this year and the opportunity to move back into European territory was seized upon. He’s not the only Kiwi at the club; defender Nando Pijnaker is also here on loan from Portuguese side Rio Ave. They are reflective of a new generation of Kiwi footballers taking flight.

“Football is the fastest growing sport at home now,” he says.

“At youth ages, most kids are playing football now. Rugby is still massive obviously, and it’s professionally run from a young age, but in terms of pure numbers I think football is getting there.

“Ten years ago, there was only a handful of people knowing what they were talking about and trying to teach it but there’s a broader base now. We have a lot of players in Europe now. Our national team is predominantly European-based players, which is big.”

Mata has been capped at senior level by his country, yet he’s been watching them from afar over the last year, while Pijnaker was part of the squad that agonisingly missed out on the World Cup via a play-off.

The forward player’s ambitions are to break into that panel and that’s why Sligo Rovers’ European exploits mean a lot to him. He’s hoping it might trigger a call back into the fold.

After being replaced in the second half, he was powerless on the sidelines last Thursday as Ed McGinty’s regulation time and penalty shootout masterclass kept the Bit O’ Red in the Europa Conference League and set up their trip to Motherwell this week.

These are big showpiece games for Mata, although it’s not his first competitive trip to Scotland. His Estonian employer visited Celtic Park for a Champions League qualifier in 2019 and, as a wide-eyed teenager, he played the second 45 in front of over 41,000 fans.

“It was an awesome experience,” he says. “I never played in front of that many people. At one point, I forgot I was on the pitch. I was looking up at the crowd seeing how high the stands actually went. But then I pulled myself back into it. It’s an experience I hope I get again soon.”

Motherwell will be a smaller event by numbers, but it might just be a rowdier atmosphere. Mata was bowled over by the crowd the Bit O’ Red brought to Wales and he enjoyed seeing The Showgrounds heaving for the return with Bala, even if a nervy team performance made it a much more complicated and stressful evening than was anticipated.

Mata knows his team will get another taste of that in the second leg on Thursday week and that’s why there is a determination to put in a strong away day display at Fir Park.

Living on his own in Sligo has given Mata a flavour of the local passion for the game, an experience that is very different to the football scene in his locality.

For all that participation numbers are up, it hasn’t translated to the creation of an Auckland fan culture. The engagement is more casual.

Sligo is a football town, and Mata has been surprised by the extent to which Rovers is a religion.

“It’s really cool actually,” he says. “Back home, people don’t live and breathe football. They might know you play or whatever but here, these people really care. It’s almost like, if there wasn’t football, then what would they do?

“That difference in passion, it brings people together and then when your club wins, like we did last Thursday night, well, you saw how electric the atmosphere was. Having that difference is special and unique, coming from New Zealand.”

Social media allows friends and family to keep track of his exploits. In his corner of Auckland, there’ll be tired individuals dragging themselves out of bed early in the morning this week and next to tune into proceedings from another hemisphere.

European matches like this are the only tests that matter in his mind.

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