Viral videos and social media posts of Argentina supporters wildly celebrating after becoming world champions in Qatar last year were inescapable. Those phenomenal scenes of pure passion all for a game of football reminded us that millions upon millions of people devote their entire lives to what they classify as their own religion.
That affection for the round ball game is felt all around South America, let alone Argentina, shedding tears of joy and tears of despair.
It is a unique feeling that can’t be described unless you are in the thick of it.
Born and raised in the capital of Chile, Santiago, Maria ‘Cote’ Rojas can connect vividly with the emotion attached to living and breathing the ups and downs of the beautiful game.
Recently signing for Canberra United to mark her second stint at the club, Rojas is now a familiar face in Australia, but her journey began nearly 13,000 kilometres away.
“Football has always meant a lot to me and it’s part of my roots growing up in Chile,” Rojas told The Inner Sanctum.
“It was the only sport that everyone associated with because even though there were other sports, football was always all over TV and everywhere you step outside.
“I used to always watch football matches with my family from as early as four years old which is when I started to find a real passion.
“Even playing on the streets with my cousins or friends I instantly fell in love with the game and had a dream to become professional.”
Five years ago, Rojas decided she wanted to challenge herself in a new culture and tackle a fresh adventure, choosing Canberra United as her destination.
Moves to Adelaide United, Sydney FC, and Melbourne City soon eventuated before returning to Australia’s capital which holds a special place in her heart.
The 35-year-old explained her decision to move back to Canberra and the process that unfolded.
“Moving back to Canberra gave me flashbacks of great memories not just because it was my first club in Australia, but it was the first club that allowed me to start my journey in Australia,” she said.
“I had a lot of experience before I joined Canberra in 2018, and breaking into the A-Leagues despite my experience wasn’t easy. There were challenges for me to be given an opportunity.
“It wasn’t until Heather Garriock contacted me to join Canberra so coming back here brings back so much joy and this city really means a lot to me.
“Canberra United has been great so far and always has been. It’s a special team where we are all part of one family.”
The new Liberty A-League Women’s campaign for 2023/24 commences this weekend. For Canberra however, the season began many weeks ago to get a step ahead in pre-season preparations.
Having arrived at the club at the start of September, Rojas has already identified the great potential within the current squad.
“We have a lot of new players which I think is very positive because everyone arrives with a different energy and are all excited to begin the season,” she said.
“We have been doing pre-season for a month now and it’s been great to see how well we connect and work together. I think the most important thing is managing how to bring new players together and the coaches have done a great job with that.
“We are very happy with our progress so far, but when the first game arrives this week, we know we’re still building and improving so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
It goes without saying that South American football and Australian football are two completely contrasting ways of life both on and off the pitch.
When asked what has impressed her the most from a football perspective since living down under, the Chilean highlighted the pay gap making strides.
“When I first arrived in Australia I remember some of the players were getting paid around 60 dollars a week; some even playing for free,” she said.
“That side of it has improved with everyone now on professional contacts and that makes me proud to be a part of with so many more opportunities available, especially for young girls who want to turn professional.”
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Any career spanning 20 years for both club and country is bound to contain some crowning moments to reflect on when all is said and done.
For Rojas, being exposed to life in Australia and showcasing her talent on one of the biggest stages are among them.
“For me playing in Australia is something I will cherish for the rest of my life,” she said.
“To look back and think of the hard work I have put in amongst all of the long hours is something that I will always be proud of.
“Showcasing my skills and what I have to offer both for my clubs and Chile is what I love the most and to be able to entertain the fans and help my teammates gives me great pride.”
If you hadn’t heard the name of Maria Rojas before July this year, there is a good chance that wouldn’t be the case for long.
Rojas was invited to be an analyst on Optus Sport for the Women’s World Cup, providing her with a platform to share her knowledge and expertise with Australian viewers.
When asked about her experience on set, she expressed her enthusiasm and gratitude for taking on a new role.
“It was absolutely amazing also because I didn’t expect to be involved in the tournament in any sort of way since Chile didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” she said.
“I then got given the opportunity to work for Optus Sport and I am so blessed and thankful to have the chance to share my passion as an analyst to watch the games and talk about so many players who I have connected with in the past.
“It was honestly one of the best experiences of my life to work with the experts and presenters which opened me up to a new understanding of what it’s like to work behind the scenes.”
Canberra United were agonisingly denied a finals berth last season, finishing in fifth place behind the Melbourne Victory by the cruel measurement of goal difference.
With Rojas now back in the frame for the green and white, she will be eager to give back to a club that has helped elevate her career.
On a personal note, what does Rojas aim to achieve in the next few months for Canberra?
“I would like to perform and be at my best every single game and be able to help my teammates, score goals, as well as provide assists,” she said.
“It is important for me to help the team win matches and make finals to achieve something special not only for myself but for the group.”