In our first Copa Coffee outside of Melbourne, we visit a forgotten player on the edge of Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach. After a coffee and a chat, Steve Kuzmanovski couldn’t wait to get the ball at his feet… 

Photos, as usual, shot by Aleksander Jason.

For the past 19 months, Steve Kuzmanovski has been cast out in the wilderness.

Just two years ago, he had a professional A-League contract, was an Australian under-20 star and a potential Socceroo. The future looked bright.

But a heart-breaking ACL injury – the second of his career – back surgery and a complicated and excruciating rehabilitation process brought a premature curtain down on a promising career.

It left him with no contract and unemployed.

In three seasons, ‘Kuzi’ was restricted to just 14 senior matches with City and Western Sydney Wanderers.

Still only 21, this record demonstrates the fragility of a professional career in Australia’s domestic competition.

But after a nearly two-year nightmare, ‘Kuzi’ is back on track. And he hopes a recent return to football will not only re-ignite his love for the game, but provide him with another shot at a professional contract.

The former Olyroos prodigy this season stepped back on the pitch with his boyhood club, St George City.

While it’s a far cry from the standards he reached with the junior national team and in club football, he’s just glad to be back out there.

Plus, playing a minute of football seemed a distance dream 19 months ago.

Kuzi’s gone on to play 20 matches, score 8 goals and notch 7 assists, helping St George gain promotion and win their division.

That return has sparked a fire in him to take another shot at his dream career as a professional footballer.

“My symptoms are improving every month. At the start I played through pain and it gradually went away. It was hard going through that.

“I am very grateful that I can step on the field once again and do the one thing I love doing. Honestly, these are the moments that I will remember and cherish until the day I die.

“I’ve felt my deepest emotions on the football field, it moves my spirit, transforms my soul and awakens my mind. It’s not just a sport to me, it’s the very air I breathe. It’s just who I am, which is why it affects me so deeply. 

“I’m back in my hometown, playing with a great bunch of boys for my old local club, in front of my family and friends. This comes after being out of the game for nearly 19 months with some very difficult injuries.”

Those injuries included excruciating lower back pain, which referred into his right foot; he’d developed sciatica.

Kuzi continued playing through debilitating pain – such was his love for the game and eagerness to reach his potential – for his club and during the under-20s World Cup Qualifiers in 2016. But it proved to be devastating.

During a match with the national team, Kuzi tried changing direction and felt a nerve shock down his leg which he believes contributed to the rupture of his ACL.

Forced to have reconstructive surgery to his knee, his sciatica pain remained. He was unable to bend or swing his leg without unbearable back pain, despite a positive recovery from his knee surgery.

He tried every natural treatment under the sun with no improvement, leaving further surgery as the only option, which lengthened his recovery period.

All this at the age of 20.

But instead of lamenting his bad luck, Kuzi – brought up in a family with strong moral values, respect and a strong work ethic – didn’t give up.

“I think injuries are a part of being a professional athlete in any sport, not just football. I have been lucky that my experience overcoming my first injury has made me a stronger person especially mentally because no matter what obstacles or setbacks come my way I know that I am capable of being focused and determined on working hard to achieve my goals. I believe everything happens for a reason and those times are preparing me for the best times ahead.”

Inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo as a youngster, Kuzi models his game on the Portuguese legend – a player who has bounced back from his fair share of injury setbacks. He hopes to once more be able to return to the A-League to execute his own trademark stepovers the Juventus forward has become renown for.

“My biggest inspiration in football has to be Cristiano. I remember when he first signed for Manchester United as an 18-year-old with his flashy moves and skills. After that moment, all I wanted to be was exactly who Ronaldo was. I used to watch and practice his skills in the backyard over and over again until I perfected them. I was lucky enough to meet him when I was at Melbourne City and I’ve never been so star struck, my hand was shaking while I was taking my selfie with him, he will always be an inspiration to me in my football journey.”

That journey has taken Kuzi to some incredible highs, as well as lows, already in his short career. He secured a dream move to Western Sydney from the AIS, made his A-League debut and then signed a two-year deal with Melbourne City, before it all came to a premature halt.

“I came back home from the AIS after three incredible years and signed a youth deal with the Western Sydney Wanderers [in 2014]. I knew I had to work incredibly hard knowing I missed a whole year [the previous year] due to an ACL injury. Three months into the NYL season, I was lucky enough to be called into the first team to train with the seniors, I was really nervous but ready to showcase what I could do.

“I remember the 6th of January 2015 like it was yesterday. Tony Popovic put me on against Melbourne Victory to make my professional debut. Words literally can’t describe that moment, you have to feel it with your heart. I’ll always be grateful to the Wanderers and Popovic for giving me that moment.

“When I secured my move to Melbourne City at the age of 18, it was a dream come true; I was officially a professional footballer. My first year was tough, I didn’t really find my best form but I learnt some valuable lessons and some important things about myself.

“My second year was going to be my breakthrough year. I started pre-season with a drive to really kick off my career, I broke my fitness records from the year before and was really getting into form playing for the under-20s Australian team. Preparations were looking good for the u20’s World Cup qualifiers but it all came to an end in the second group stage game where I tore my second ACL. My season ended before it even started and I was devastated. I really feel that I owe the club my full potential and I hope one day I can fulfil that.

“Pursuing a career in football has made me independent and mature a lot faster as I had to leave home at a young age and make many sacrifices. However, playing this sport has also taught me how to work in a team environment and learn from each other to improve. Life has taught me that there are no short cuts to success and you have to be disciplined in all aspects to achieve your goal.”

The fire has been sparked. The desire and maturity is there.

Kuzi knows the return will be tough. The training, the effort, will be gruelling. The opportunities are limited. But he’s holding on to his second chance with everything he’s got.