A Moroccan lifeline changed Baccus’s life; a decade on, he’s repaying the debt in a way he couldn’t have predicted

Kearyn Baccus finally ended his goal drought on the weekend with a match winning strike.

Macarthur midfielder is enjoying his football more than ever at 32 after fighting to even have a professional career.

If Kearyn Baccus ever forgets that at 32 his career is moving towards veteran status, the surname of one of his teammates at Macarthur is a daily reminder of how it all began.

Almost a decade since Baccus sat with this reporter in a Moroccan palace to discuss his hopes of earning a contract with the Wanderers under Tony Popovic, the midfielder is passing on tips to Kristian Popovic, Tony’s eldest son, as they leave the field at the Bulls’ training ground at the end of an intensive training session.

Time passes, especially when you’re having – as Baccus emphasises – more fun than ever as a footballer. For a player who at the start of his 20s thought a professional career might have passed him by, every day now is there to be enjoyed, let alone every season.

He has every right to be in a good mood, too, after scoring Macarthur’s clinching goal against the Mariners at the weekend, his first in 112 A-League matches since his performances at the Club World Cup in Morocco in 2014 – signed as an injury replacement – earned him a contract with Popovic at Western Sydney.

Baccus was 23 by then and a youth contract in France, plus a stint with Perth, had ultimately led nowhere. Popovic changed his life in that sense.

“Popa’s probably been one of the best coaches in Australia for a long time, and to learn under him and with his guidance, I guess it just gave me stepping stones on what it takes to be a professional and how to last long in the game,” Baccus tells aleagues.com.au ahead of Saturday’s home game with Western United.

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“Now I’m actually passing a little bit on to his son here, Kristian – he’s doing well, doing very well. He’s pushing and hopefully he can get a bit of game time soon.”

Baccus is as quietly spoken as a decade ago but now he has that near decade of experience to offer a sense of perspective to the younger players around him. The night before he was on the phone to Al Hassan Toure, his former teammate at Macarthur who is currently struggling for game time in Turkey.

Baccus (right) with former Macarthur teammate Al Hassan Toure (left)

“He goes, ‘Man, I’m not happy, I’m not enjoying it, I want to get back to enjoying it. Like playing games, assisting, goals. And I said, ‘Yeah, bro, it’s hard, people don’t understand. It’s very hard the first couple of years (in Europe). 

“It makes or breaks you, I guess, if you’re not enjoying it. You’re in two minds whether to come home. But I said, once you settle in after the first year, it gets easier.”

Baccus has always known that sense of landing somewhere new, after his parents decided to emigrate from South Africa 25 years ago when he was seven. He still remembers his homeland, “but we left at a young age and we classified Australia as being home, this is the country that’s given us everything,” he says. 

“My mum just said she’d had enough of South Africa and that was that.”

In a bizarre twist Baccus got to return there professionally as an adult in 2019, when Kaiser Chiefs offered to meet the buyout clause in his contract at Melbourne City and begin an unlikely journey with the Johannesburg-based side that led all the way to the final of the African Champions League two years later.

There was drama on and off the field, uncomfortably aware of the presence of both government and rebel armed forces at various points as his team traversed the continent, and sneaking out of their group thanks to a late equaliser in the Guinean capital Conakry that sent the Chiefs through on away goals scored.

But the arrival of English coach Stuart Baxter threw a spanner in the works for Baccus, who had featured in every game until the final but was omitted for the latter game itself. His game time waned further the following season and Baccus realised it was time for a move – even though Baxter had, as coach of South Africa previously, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Baccus to play for his country of birth.

“I enjoyed every moment of (playing in Africa), to be honest,” Baccus says. “Now that I’m getting older, I think I’m enjoying my football a lot more, seeing things a lot differently.

“Even (Covid) was actually pretty good for me. I was pretty grateful, we got paid our whole salary even in lockdown for maybe a good four months, and then another two months we were half training, half not, and then we were still getting paid.

“Not many players Australian players can say they’ve done an African Champions League (campaign), it was good learning curve.

Baccus playing for Kaiser Chiefs. Picture: Twitter

“We saw a lot, saw the rebels in Sierra Leone for instance, but to be honest, every country in the world loves football. You don’t really get interfered with when you’re going somewhere to play football.

“The last year wasn’t so good… I was ready but we had big squads over there and I guess Baxter had his own players that he brought in and that’s who he wanted to use.

“As a player, sometimes you’ve got to accept that and just train hard. I had a feeling I was going to come back to the A-League.”

There was more than one offer on the table but he chose Macarthur and now gets to be one of the senior professionals in Mile Sterjovski’s regime. 

“We’ve recruited well (this year), the boys are buying into Mile’s vision and the coaching staff have showed us in preseason what we can achieve if we believe.

“It’s a good time to be here at the moment. A lot of the young boys are getting game time, boys who are like 19, 20, 21 are starting. It’s exciting for the league.

“But it makes me think, how long do I have left? I’m enjoying myself and I guess I’ve got a good three or four years and then after that I guess I’ve just got to calculate. Maybe I’ll go into center back, change my position!”

All the while he’s watching with pride as his younger brother goes from strength to strength in Scotland, building on remarkably assured displays for the Socceroos at the World Cup last year – including some crunching tackles on one very famous player.

Keanu Baccus battles with Lionel Messi at the World Cup last December.

“(At the World Cup) I think everyone asked him to give (Lionel) Messi a bit of a kick,” he says of Keanu. “He messaged and said he’d got a couple of death threats after it happened as well.

“Like people are messaging him saying, Why are you touching him like that? I guess it woke him up a little bit!

“I speak to him nearly every day, I’m happy he’s doing so well. He’s a good kid, very humble and hard working and quiet. Just gets on with his business and we’re all happy for him.”