The remarkable rise of Albert Riera was underlined in Wollongong today as the Wellington Phoenix midfielder completed his first training session with the A-League All Stars.
The 30-year-old Spaniard arrived in New Zealand four years ago as a tourist, seeking a break from football and his day job as a paramedic.
But, following some urging from his father, Riera contacted fellow Barcelonan Ramon Tribulietx, the coach at Auckland City.
After quickly developing into a standout at the semi-professional national league club, Riera caught his big break last year when signed by Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick after impressing in a pre-season game.
He was the Phoenix's player of the year in 2013-14, his first season of professional football, and on August 10 he will tackle his idol Andrea Pirlo and Italian giants Juventus at Sydney's sold-out ANZ Stadium.
''It's funny how your life works out,'' said Riera, who has Phoenix team-mate Manny Muscat for company in the All Stars squad.
''When I came here, it was to have a break from soccer and my job. I turned out to be ... a professional soccer player. That's because I was enjoying, you know, that's the main thing for me. To be happy, enjoying what I'm doing and I've been doing that so far.''
The Josep Gombau-coached All Stars will play the Australian under-20 team in a friendly game in Wollongong on Tuesday as preparation for the exhibition match against one of world football's most famous clubs.
''Even though I'm not a youngster, you still want to learn,'' said Riera, who has excelled in a screening role in front of the Phoenix back four.
''Playing against these guys, you can learn a lot of things. I'm really looking forward to it, to see how they move. It's not the same when you're watching on TV, to live, playing against these guys.''
Riera and club coach Ernie Merrick are high on confidence after the Phoenix upset West Ham 2-1 then lost 1-0 to Newcastle in last week's Football United Tour.
''Really exciting to be honest, second season for me and for Ernie,'' Riera said.
''I think we're working really well, you know, under Ernie's hands. I think he is doing a great job, everybody is really involved. We all trust in the way he is training us, you know, the sort of soccer we want to practice.
"I think we showed last year that it was the way to do it. We worked really hard, it was a transition year and I think this year we are, hopefully, going to make the playoffs.''
- The Dominion Post
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