HAMILTON teenager Marco Rojas has won the ultimate prize as a result of a scholarship run by supporters of Wellington Phoenix FC, signing a two-year deal to join the New Zealand-based club in the Hyundai A-League.
Rojas, 17, won a Yellow Fever scholarship worth $5000 that allowed him to train with the Phoenix for a week. The Hamilton Wanderers midfielder so impressed Phoenix officials following his first week with the club that he was invited to return to the New Zealand capital for another trial period, culminating in him travelling to Queenstown for the Phoenix-s pre-season match against Melbourne Victory last weekend.
Coming on in the second half against the Victory, Rojas immediately made an impact, helping set up Troy Hearfield-s 77th-minute equaliser in the 1-1 draw at the Queenstown Events Centre. With Ricki Herbert watching in the stand, Rojas had proved he deserved a contract.
Phoenix chief executive Tony Pignata said club supporters- group Yellow Fever deserved huge credit for bringing the talented youngster to the attention of the club.
“This year and last year Yellow Fever have had a programme where they go out and search for a ‘star of the future- and we allowed the winner to be involved at the club for a week.
“This year-s Yellow Fever scholarship went to Marco. Unfortunately he was injured the week he was originally supposed to come but was able to join us when our All Whites went away to the Confederations Cup.
“Funnily enough, he probably came at the right time. He had more opportunities to play in trial games with the All Whites away and he did very well.”
Rojas had been under the watchful eyes of Phoenix assistant coaches Luciano Trani and Jonathan Gould while Herbert was in South Africa leading the All Whites. The Phoenix head coach got to know the youngster more on and off the pitch during the club-s visit to Queenstown.
“Victory were pretty much at full strength and when Marco came on he certainly didn-t look out of place,” Pignata said.
“We took a good, long look at him and with Ricki away it was great to have high-calibre staff in Luc and Gouldy monitoring things. They were very impressed with Marco-s energy and technical ability him and gave their opinions to Ricki, who liked what he saw in Queenstown. That clinched it and we-re very happy to sign him as our mandatory third under-21 player.”
Pignata was pleased that the talented Rojas would have an opportunity to play professional football in New Zealand, having only turned out in a handful of matches for New Zealand Football Championship side Waikato FC previously.
“How he slipped through the system, I-m not sure. But I-m glad we-re able to put him into a professional environment and that the club and, indeed, its supporters are helping the development of football in New Zealand.
“It would have been a shame if he-d slipped under the radar and he-d been lost to an overseas club, so it-s a great result for everyone involved.”
Given Rojas- age and inexperience, the club would do everything in its power to help him on and off the pitch.
“He-s got a level head on his shoulders and his father, Rodi, will be coming down from Hamilton to live with him in Wellington. We-ll look after Marco in all facets of life here and we-ll also sit down with his parents to discuss his academic requirements.
“Marco-s in his final year of school at Fraser High in Hamilton and there is life after football, so we want to make sure Marco has all the opportunities possible in terms of a playing career and in life in general.”
Rojas was still getting to grips with his rise to the Phoenix.
“It-s incredible. This is a dream come true and I can-t wait to get to Wellington. I-ve got a lot of people at Yellow Fever to thank for all of this.”
Rojas will join his new teammates for the Phoenix-s trip to Christchurch this weekend, where the team will take part in a range of community events before playing a Mainland Selection XI at QEII Park on Sunday. He will then relocate to Wellington to continue pre-season training.
Meanwhile, utility player Jeremy Christie has not had his contract with then Phoenix renewed. The 26-year-old New Zealand representative was a foundation player for the Phoenix and departs after two years with the club.
“We want to thank Jeremy for his contribution to the club,” Pignata said. “Unfortunately, we had to make some tough decisions around the squad and our focus was on other areas in terms of recruitment. He has been a valued member of the club and we wish him all the best.”
Christie played 27 matches for the Phoenix, having previously represented the New Zealand Knights and Perth Glory.
Photo Credit: Grant Stantiall