Former Aussie U17 captain Kaz Patafta ready to answer Laos' World Cup call

Former Benfica midfielder Kaz Patafta hopes to be given a second chance at international football in June, when Southeast Asian minnows Laos embark on their World Cup qualifying campaign in a tough group that includes 2002 semifinalists South Korea.

Last week, Patafta completed his transfer to Lao Premier League side Lanexang United FC from Khon Kaen United in the Thailand third tier, with the aim of earning his first senior cap.

But it might easily have been different for the 26-year-old, whose mother hails from the capital city, Vientiane.

Nine years ago, the Canberra-born teenage prodigy was a whisker from earning a full Australian cap when Guus Hiddink brought him into an enlarged squad before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He did come on as a sub in an unofficial match against amateur side VV Kloetinge, as the likes of Tim Cahill and John Aloisi powered the Socceroos to an 8-1 victory.

At the time on the books of Benfica and having captained Australia at the 2005 U17 World Championship in Peru, Patafta appeared to be on the verge of greatness.

Instead, the man whom Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou once described as the most technically gifted player he's ever worked with became the poster child for prodigious footballing talent falling short of its potential, a little like Australia's answer to United States starlet Freddy Adu.

Of course, that is harsh, given that Patafta appeared three times for Benfica's first team and made almost 50 appearances in the A-League for Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets. But by the age of 22, Patafta had retired from professional football and was pursuing a law degree at Bond University on the Gold Coast.

"My time in the A-League was disappointing," he told ESPN FC. "Benfica were extremely hesitant for me to return to Australia on loan, and their advice proved to be correct, as I was never given a genuine opportunity to play in the A-League."

Criticised for lacking the physical presence to assert himself in the A-League, he usually found himself on the bench and given only 10 or 15 minutes to make an impact.

A disillusioned Patafta spent more than two years out of the game, completing his clerkship with a Sydney law firm after securing a law degree in 2014 and helping establish a Canberra football academy. Then, after playing a few games for a local semiprofessional side, his hunger for a full comeback grew. When the opportunity for a modest contract with a newly formed lower tier club in Thailand came in January, he didn't hesitate.

"It is very rewarding to play professionally in Asia, even if it has been a long road to get to where I am now," he said. "My experience in Thailand was very positive because I was able to complete a full preseason and began their campaign playing in the majority of matches.

"But I made a strategic midseason move to Laos to increase my chances of being involved with the national team for the World Cup qualifiers. Lanexang are an extremely ambitious club, and the owner has invested significantly to enable the club to compete in Asia. I still have a strong desire to improve as a footballer and believe I am in a great environment to do so."

With a FIFA ranking of 178, Laos are coached by Englishman David Booth and appeared in last year's AFF Suzuki Cup. They will face Myanmar and Lebanon at home on June 11 and 16 to start their second round World Cup qualifiers. Patafta has been given no guarantees but is considered to have a good chance of selection once his status as a Lao national is complete.

"My mother moved to Australia in 1975, and I definitely feel connected to Laos," said Patafta, who has a Croatian father. "Although I cannot yet speak the language, I have grown up around my mother's family and feel very comfortable living in Vientiane, as I have an understanding for the culture."

Laos have never played in a major international tournament but have shown they are capable of springing a surprise. They drew 2-2 with Indonesia in the 2012 Suzuki Cup and defeated Cambodia 8-6 on aggregate to make the second round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

Patafta is keen to impress national coach Booth when the second leg of the Lao Premier League season begins next month.

Having trained alongside Rui Costa and David Luiz at Benfica and briefly been a teammate of his hero, Harry Kewell, before the 2006 World Cup, Patafta prefers to look ahead, rather than dwell on what might have been.

"The World Cup qualifiers will be an extremely strong test of character and ambition for Laos, and I am very optimistic of my chances to be involved in the campaign," he said. "I look forward to surprising many people."

What about the prospect of facing his birth nation of Australia, which is possible if both nations progress to the third round of qualifying?

"Being in the pre-2006 World Cup camp during the Socceroos' significant campaign was a career highlight and a teenager's dream come true," he said. "The new Socceroo generation is extremely strong, so it would be a very interesting match. I would play with the same pride and dedication I've always taken if I could represent my mother's home nation."

Patafta was once predicted to be leading the way in that new Socceroos' generation, with the likes of Robbie Kruse, Matt Spiranovic and Nathan Burns graduating from his U17 team to lift January's Asian Cup. Instead, he gets a second chance at glory in the city his family left 40 years ago.