Words: ACFC Media
Friday 4 February 2022
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Former Croatia age group international Mario Bilen has left Auckland City FC after eight years with the club.
The 36-year-old midfielder joined the Navy Blues from HNK Zadar in 2013 just in time to make his debut at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco against Raja Casablanca.
He made 168 appearances and scored six goals winning the OFC Champions League five times, the New Zealand Football Championship four times, the OFC President's Cup, Nike Lunar New Year Cup and the Charity Cup six times.
In total, Bilen won 28 major honours and league titles, including last year's maiden Northern League victory and a record eight-in-a-row NZFC league titles.
But, after a recent discussion with first team coach Albert Riera, Bilen accepted his time with the Navy Blues was up.
"I spoke with Albert Riera and he said to me he wanted to refresh the team and I said to him I understand and he doesn't have to worry about my reaction.
"I respect his decision. When you come to my age, 36, you expect this - its no drama. I spoke with Albert two days ago about some other stuff, so there's no issue there," Bilen told www.aucklandcityfc.com.
Bilen said he wanted to keep playing football for as long as he could and that coaching wasn't in his immediate thoughts although he was open to the idea he may have a change of heart in the future.
"I'm not finished playing yet, to be clear. There are a few other clubs who have spoken with me.
"I still feel I want to take on a challenge as a player at a club that wants to do things and get involved with.
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"I have choices and there are a few good clubs there. We'll see what happens.
"As far as coaching goes, well, maybe ask me in two years time.
"I work full time and finding the space to combine something like playing and coaching is difficult, but in time maybe something changes and I would look at it," he said.
Bilen's best memories of Kiwitea Street
When asked about his best memories at Kiwitea Street, Bilen smiles.
"The best memories are easy to find. People talk about the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014 but for me its not just that tournament, it was the whole season.
"We were excellent - we won the OFC President's Cup, OFC Champions League, playing Uzbekistan and Japan, New Zealand Football Championship in the league and in the final, and the bronze medal at the Club World Cup.
"The only game we dropped was the Charity Cup and even then that was on penalty kicks.
"No team has achieved that type of clean sweep and I am doubtful it will happen again.
"Everything was almost perfect. We beat teams in big games by fighting to the end - Marko Dordevic's late headed winner against Hawke's Bay in the NZFC final, the penalty shoot out win over Team Wellington in the Champions League in Suva as well," he recalls.
Bilen played as a defender or in midfield and often came up against teams stacked with top professionals in international tournaments.
"Playing high calibre teams is not easy. But when its hard, and you win, you get even more satisfaction from the outcome.
"Winning the Lunar Cup in 2017 in Hong Kong and beating a professional club like FC Seoul and the Hong Kong national team was incredible.
"These are big achievements and people don't know how hard it is to beat teams like that playing good football and controlling games.
"Sometimes I would rather lose 1-0 playing a good style of football than win 1-0 and have a bad game.
"This is my point of view for football in general," he said.
Bilen on Tribulietx and Dalić
When asked about his memories of coaches he worked with, Bilen speaks with enthusiasm of two people.
He also recalls how reconnecting with a former Croatia team-mate as a result of the City's Club World Cup success proved a highlight.
"At Auckland City FC, Ramon Tribulietx was number one for me.
"He was thorough and was always ten steps above the competition in my opinion.
"Ramon always worked hard and was always blunt in his assessment.
"The coach I had before I came to Auckland City FC was Zlatko Dalić who took Croatia to second place at the FIFA World Cup in Russia four years ago.
"He's a big name and he was in the Middle East for many many years.
"Zlatko was an incredible coach and it was a pleasure to learn from him," Bilen said.
Bilen and Luka Modrić
During that amazing run to third place at the Club World Cup, Real Madrid's final with Auckland City FC's conquerors San Lorenzo was played an hour after final whistle.
That meant Real Madrid players and Auckland City FC players mingled before the trophy presentation behind the scenes.
That allowed Bilen to rekindle his friendship with an old pal.
"I played with Luka Modrić, we both broke into the Croatia national team at the same time.
"We've been long time friends, we met when we were 19 or 20 years old.
"We lost touch when he joined Tottenham Hotspur and then Real Madrid - but he was always a different talent, a different force.
"Anytime I would see Luka we would be good friends and talk about the same things from the past.
"Seeing him in Morocco was amazing - he said we should redirect our private plane to join their party in Madrid, which made me laugh because all our flights were commercial.
"Luka is such a nice guy not just with me but with everybody," he said.
Bilen's favourite City players - the Kiwi contingent
Bilen shared the pitch with a generation of players who achieved a raft of top honours and filtering through them all to locate the best of them takes him some time to roll out.
He's spoiled for choice.
He starts with the Kiwi contingent he felt distinguished themselves during his time at the club.
"The best Auckland City FC players I played with? So many. Ivan Vicelich comes to mind.
"He was 34 or 35 when I joined the club and he was nearly 40 when he stopped playing and you couldn't see much difference in his game, he was that good.
"He was always on the same level of quality - every single training session, every single game - the same.
"It didn't matter if we played San Lorenzo or Southern United, he was the same level of excellence.
"I really enjoyed playing with Ivan, he was exceptional.
"Another top player was Ryan De Vries, Ryan could have gone a very long way and a lot higher in football with a stronger mentality.
"But his finishing and strength were big qualities.
"You have players like Tamati Williams who was an unbelievable goalkeeper and someone like Darren White.
"Darren didn't play as many games, especially in that 2014 season, but for me he is an unbelievable player capable of good things.
"Tim Payne was also a very good player, " he said.
Bilen's favourite City players from abroad
Bilen also has a soft spot for several Kiwitea Street players who were born abroad.
"One player who always impressed me was Takuya Iwata - he was always on my left hand side. Taku is a good guy, a hard worker and you could always rely on him.
"If I had to choose just one person I had to go into war with it would be Takuya..
"David Browne and Angel Berlanga who was always a good level.
"Emiliano Tade always brought something different, something nobody else had - he has an x-factor," Bilen said.
Bilen wishes club well for the future
In summing up his eight years, Bilen thanked the club and its supporters for the way they turned up to back him and the team.
"I am grateful for all the support I enjoyed at my time with the club.
"It was always great to see people at our games - I was grateful just to see even ten of them.
"You can't expect more from the supporters who follow us. I wish over the most recent seasons we delivered more success and enjoyment for them because Covid-19 has also made following football a challenge.
"I would like to see more people come to the games and maybe something can be done to link this to our Academy.
"That could make for an interesting project for the club into the future.
I want to wish the club and Albert all the best for the year ahead," he said.
Auckland City FC thanks Bilen for his service
Auckland City FC chairperson Ivan Vuksich paid tribute to Bilen.
"Mario is without doubt one of the best footballers to wear an Auckland City FC jersey and I want to place on record our thanks as a club for everything he contributed on and off the field.
"He is a very gifted footballer and a deep thinker about the game and he could easily add value were he to turn his attention toward coaching.
"Mario was always a calming presence under pressure on the pitch and we wish him all the best," Vuksich said.
Albert Riera on Mario Bilen discussion
Auckland City FC coach Albert Riera also spoke highly of Bilen having shared a midfield role with the Croatian on many occasions.
"Mario was the consummate team-mate. He was a quality footballer, of course, but he also knew what to say and when to say it - in that way, he could bring out the best in players around him.
"He is a natural leader on and off the pitch, he carries himself well and is a role model for anyone who wants to see how to train and play.
"Our discussion was very straight forward about the future and I think he expected the discussion now he is 36 years of age.
"I have to say that our chat went well. For me, as a coach, it was also a hard decision to make.
"But part of being a footballer is reaching the end of journeys and I want to wish Mario all the best for the next adventure he undertakes," Riera said.
Name: Mario Bilen
Auckland City FC appearances: 168
Auckland City FC goals: 6
Auckland City FC - Most Appearances
Angel Berlanga 215 games, 8 goals
James Pritchett 203 games, 5 goals
Emiliano Tade 183 games, 122 goals
Ivan Vicelich 171 games, 15 goals
Mario Bilen 168 games, 6 goals
Croatia U-20 international
Croatia U-17 international
FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2014 bronze medal
Nike Lunar New Year Cup winner 2017
OFC Champions League winner 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017
OFC President's Cup winner 2014
New Zealand Football Championship winner 2014-15, 2015-16, 2018-19, 2019-20
New Zealand Football Championship League winner 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21
Northern League winner 2021
NZF Charity Cup winner 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021
v Wellington Olympic, 11 March 2023, KO: TBC