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The Player! On The Ball

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Trading software pro by day, footballer by night, or at least weekends, Matija Maretic would bask in the glow of backstopping his DBFC team to the final of the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens – if it didn’t ache so much.

Elizabeth Kerr reports. PHOTOS BY Richard Gordon – www.richardgordonphotography.com & courtesy of HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens

Matija Maretic has a dad bod. That applies to the 46-year-old father of two (to a daughter, 11, and a son, three) literally and figuratively. The native of Croatia credits his ability to play in May’s HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens to the HIIT workout group DB Dad Bods keeping him fit during COVID, as well as able to be home by 7am to per form dad duties.

“That started during the pandemic when gyms were closed. It was difficult to do with the mask on, but a couple of guys managed to organise it and keep it going,” he begins. “It’s five minutes from my house on the beach. I do the 6am so I can be home to get the kids to school. I think that helps keep me in shape.”

Matija is sitting in a Central eatery at lunchtime in early June, looking tanned and youthful – just now recovered from his May 26 to 28 Soccer Sevens ordeal.

“I was going to retire three years ago, I was already 43, but this year…” he trails off with a shrug. Out of town on business, he missed try-outs for this year’s tournament but, as a veteran, Discovery Bay Football Club (DBFC) coach Tim Bredbury cut him some slack and let him try-out late. He made the cut, but the central defender had to be content with playing wing as a back-up. “There’s a huge Brazilian guy and a huge Nigerian guy, both 10 years younger than me, in that spot now,” he says with a resigned laugh.

As fate would have it, the team’s semi-pro goalkeeper got slapped with a three-game suspension by the Football Association two days before the tournament. “So Tim calls me up those two days before and says, ‘Matija, we have a problem. We just lost our keeper and I have no time to find another one. Would you be willing to step in?’ The last time I played keep I was 15.” Serendipity. Matija backstopped Ampcontrol Discovery Bay – aka the DBFC Masters – to the final.

DAD WITH A DAY JOB

Football is in Matija’s blood – he’s quick to point out Croatia’s stellar World Cup per formances over the last five tournaments – and he’s been playing since he was a kid in Pula, across the water from Venice. It’s a hobby, but he still needs it to be a challenge, which is why he gravitated to the DBFC almost as soon as he and his wife landed in Hong Kong seven years ago, and DB about six months after that.

“When we moved to Hong Kong our daughter was two, and we lived in Central for a bit,” he says with a wave. “But with the pushchair and all the gear and the people, we thought, ‘Oh my god, this is a nightmare’. Then a friend invited us for a barbecue in DB, and we were all, ‘Oooh, we could live here’. Central is not kid-friendly. Here, it’s easy for kids to get to school; my daughter can go by herself. It’s much more convenient and very international.” The road to Hong Kong was circuitous.

Matija left Croatia in 1994 for Car thage College to study physics and mathematics in the United States, and then spent five years in Milan. “I started a company, Marvelsoft, software development for financial markets, that was eventually bought by a French firm, which is why I moved to Paris.” He was there for 12 years before the company opened a Hong Kong office for its Asian operations. Matija isn’t a pure developer, and he’s not a pure researcher; lab work doesn’t appeal to him the way real application of his software does. “I didn’t want to do any post-grad studies either,” he says with a grin. “I tried a summer internship but realised it was not for me. Locked up in a lab all day? No. I need people around me.”

PLAYER WITH THE DBFC MASTERS

Which is what makes the DBFC (www.discoverybayfc.com) a nice fit too. Matija had to scale back playing time in Paris when it became too much of a commitment with a newborn (at the time), but the easier going, very international DBFC format suits him just fine.

“We play seven-a-side, which is actually a 25-year-old tradition in DB, going back to when they were building the airport. There was a French and British team who played each other, now it’s more international. We play Thursday nights and we don’t talk when we have a beer after. Black shirts on one side of the pub, white on the other. It’s very competitive,” he finishes with a laugh.

The annual two-tiered Soccer Sevens this year featured a main section, with pro teams from Fulham, Aston Villa and Leicester City alongside those from Singapore Football Club, Yau Yee League and, of course, the Hong Kong Football Club (HKFC). The Masters teams – for players over 35 – included the HKFC, Rio Cricket Athletic Association, the title sponsor Citi All Stars and Ampcontrol Discovery Bay.

Matija points out that this was the DBFC Masters’ tenth go at the Soccer Sevens, and that they have an excellent track record. In 2018, DBFC players won the Masters Cup and in 2017 and 2019, they were runnersup for the Masters Plate. This year, the team secured sponsorship from a group of fellow DB residents to enter the tournament as Ampcontrol Discovery Bay, and until the final on the Sunday, they only allowed one goal in five games.

Though Matija earned some football cred in 2018 when he stopped a penalty by former Aston Villa striker Carlton Cole, he chalks his 2023 success up to his defence. “I think Tim told them, ‘Matija’s not a keeper. You better protect him’. And they did.”

With the tournament a wrap for another year – Wallsend Boys Club ultimately beat the DBFC in the final with a golden goal in the play-off – Matija can relax for the summer. He’s looking forward to six weeks in Europe – a work trip back to Milan followed by a vacation with his family when they go meet him. It will be one of their first trips since COVID put the kibosh on travelling. Not that Matija noticed. His son was born in 2020, so he had intended to spend more time at home anyway.

The vacation will also give Matija time to consider 2024’s Soccer Sevens. Will he be back? “In a week I lost three kilos. I was exhausted, and it took me four days to get back to normal. And it was super-hot. I vowed I’d never do it again,” he says with a chuckle and a sigh. “But next year Tim’s going to call me and ask me to come for a try-out and I’m going to say, ‘Why not?’ It just depends on whether or not I keep in shape.” That’s what the DB Dad Bods are for.

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