Australian defender Ante Bakmaz has embarked on a new journey and joined his eighth different football competition after signing for Romanian second division side Comunia Recea.
While Sydney-born Bakmaz might be little known in his homeland, the centre back has carved out a unique seven-year career overseas that has seen him play in Croatia, the Netherlands, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania, Lebanon, Indonesia and now Romania.
The journeyman from Parramatta has had spells in both Europe and Asia, and battled all matters of language barriers and other obstacles, with a stint now in Liga II after Covid-19 caused the end of his two-season stay in Indonesia.
“When I was young I always used to joke about people throwing around the journeyman tag,” Bakmaz told The World Game.
“Now when I look back I’m like oh, I kind of fall into that category. What can I say, I’m very fortunate and grateful that I’ve been able to….obviously I didn’t start my career in professional football, but in the last five, six years I have been.
“I’m grateful that I’ve been able to make a living out of playing professional football, not many Australians can say they’ve played in the leagues I have for so long. I don’t have any plans to slow down.
“I’m still doing something I love in a bit of an exotic place. There’s been ups and downs and funny things, but it’s all part of it. When I look back I’ve played in three continents, lived with all sorts of cultures and religions.
“I’m lucky, away from football I’ve got friends from around the world. It’s pretty cool to know so many people from different countries.”
Bakmaz grew up in Sydney’s west and played for Sydney United and Granville Rage as a youngster. After senior football with the likes of Fraser Park and Fairfield City Lions, the centre back with Croatian heritage decided to chance his arm in the birthplace of his parents.
“In the school and uni holidays I always went back to Croatia with my family and did a bit of training with a few sides there,” he explained.
“That’s when I thought I could take this to the next level. Once I finished everything up in Australia, I finished my degree, and I thought I’m going to give this a crack. I went to Croatia, ended up on doorsteps and calling people to give me a shot, and I ended up with a third division team there.
“I played in Croatia for a year and then the journey began.”
After spending time with NK Trsnjevka and NK Laduc, Bakmaz headed to Holland to join Morrocan-based club Chabab. The defender impressed at the amateur Dutch side and managed to earn a contract with the third team of European giant Ajax.
“I was in Holland for two years, at that time I was living with Kenny Dougall, who’s now at Blackpool,” he said.
“After that I managed to get a deal with Ajax’s third tier in the third division. That was unreal. We had the same philosophy as the first-team – maybe not the ability like the big guys – but we had the same philosophy.
“We trained where the first-team trained, we had everything they had, that was an amazing learning curve. When I was there I was lucky, we had a lot of friendly games against the Under-23s so I saw Kasper Dolgberg, Frenkie de Jong, van der Vaart came in, these were all kids but they were technically unreal.
“Just different class. Every day you’d go to training and see Jaap Stam, van der Saar, Overmars. The first-team coach then was Frank de Boer.”
But with little chance of progression at de Godenzonen, in 2016 Bakmaz headed south to join Maltese Premier League side St Andrews. A season later he moved to sign for Latvian outfit FK Jelgava,
“I thought if I was really going to make something of myself I had to close that gap,” the 28-year-old said.
“I was only in Malta for a short-time. I got a few games in and then I went to Latvia. In Malta I found the football very defensive, very Italian-based. I just wanted to go to a club that was a bit more ambitious.
“FK Jelgava were playing in the Europa League at that point. I played twice in the Europa League. I fell in love with Latvia a little bit. I think I was the first Australian to play there, it was really good.”
Bakmaz’s wandering spirit continued and he joined Lithuanian club FK Kauno Zalgiris, before returning to Latvia with Valmeiras FK for a brief stint. In 2018 the defender returned home and spent a month on trial with Central Coast Mariners.
“I wanted to change things, I had a trial with the Mariners back when Usain Bolt was there,” he said.
“That unfortunately didn’t pan out. But it was nice to go there and perform, and say I was at that level. Then I went to Lebanon with Nejmeh, they were in the AFC Cup.
“That was awesome, another amazing experience. We played against clubs in Jordan and Syria. It was good to test myself in Asia.
“We got knocked out of the AFC Cup, then protests started in Lebanon and the league was stopped after two games, so they didn’t play for a year. So it wasn’t smart to stay there.
“After that I had a chance to go to Indonesia and was with Madura United for a season. It was quite good, we had a lot of national team players. Indonesia was great to me, I learned the language and fitted in there.
“But then Covid hit and after three games I wanted to rethink things and I was really passionate about coming back to Europe. I just didn’t see the game going anywhere there.
“We did have pay cuts, but I just don’t see Indonesian football recovering from something like this. They kept on stalling when the league was going to restart, and they’re still doing it. No one knows what’s going to happen.
“I wasn’t getting anywhere with my football there. The quality is not really that high. They couldn’t handle the virus and I was lucky that a club took me from Indonesia.”
Bakmaz landed in Romania in September and so far has five made appearances for the newly-promoted club.
Communa Recea are currently in 17th place in the 21-team league with two victories, two draws and five defeats from nine matches.
“It’s a small town, the club is from a village,” he said.
“But I’m living in a nice town, they’re recently promoted from the third division. It all happened very quickly, I managed to find a club. I feel the football in Romania suits me, it’s very technical and tactical.
“It’s a big country, there’s a lot of talented players and big clubs here.”
After getting more stamps in his passport in seven years then many footballers receive in a lifetime, the Aussie is keen to put down some roots in Romania. The Recenii, located near the border with Ukrainian border, are seeking to avoid relegation and Bakmaz wants to help them do it.
“The goal is to stay up,” he said.
“We’ve got a good head coach who takes thing very seriously. We work a lot on tactics. We’ve got a lot of talent in the squad, it’s just about putting it all together.
I want to stay put somewhere. When you’re younger it’s all exciting [the constant travel], but now I want to stay somewhere and have a good season under my belt.”