Former soccer pro rebrands with SoccerFest

By Herb Scribner

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Courtesy Miha Kline

In 1988, Holland and U.S.S.R. competed in the final of the European Football Championships in West Germany. Dutch striker Marco Van Basten scored a heart-stopping goal for the Oranje and led them to a 2-0 victory over the Soviets.

Miles away from the final game in Ljubljana, Slovenia, young Miha Kline watched Basten score in awe. The moment would forever be ingrained in Kline’s mind.

“From then on I knew there was nothing I’d want more than to one day be like [Basten] and play at the highest level,” said Kline, 23 years later.

Kline didn’t let the moment slip from him, as he pursued soccer as a way to match Basten’s remarkable skill on the pitch. In 2011, Kline is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts and has helped coordinate the upcoming Supercuts SoccerFest 2011 event, scheduled for April 30.

Part of his work for the Isenberg School of Management is connected with the sport he competed in for so many years.

“It’s something for the community, it’s a completely grassroots event that brings together people that love soccer, love being outside and being as active as possible, and promotes a healthy way of life,” Kline said on SoccerFest.

Before he made it to UMass, ISOM or SoccerFest, Kline competed professionally in Europe for the world’s sport.

Rise to the pros

Kline’s soccer roots began with his father who also played the sport. However, after his father dropped “nogomet,” which is Slovenian for “soccer/football” to study education, the elder Kline moved to Ljubljana, where Miha would be born.

At a young age, Kline immediately became involved with the sport competitively in order to meet that of his favorite player, the aforementioned Basten.

“When I was a kid all that mattered to me was a soccer ball and winning … and I played with my friends for hours and hours every single day after school and until the day ended. I absolutely loved every minute I spent on the soccer field,” said Kline.

His first experience for a club was at the age of eight, when he competed for his local town club. He stayed with the club until he was 18, and even captured the National U-16 Championship in 1996 for Slovenia.

The success he found in his hometown also elevated him to his first professional team, as he signed a contract with NK Ljublijana at the age of 19 – a team that competes in the top league of Slovenian soccer.

“This was a great opportunity for me, because the team was filled with present or former National Team players and some of the best players that played the first division soccer for many years,” said Kline. “Having so much experience around me was invaluable for me developing as a player, getting more mature soccer-wise and learn about playing on a totally different level from some of the best.”

According to Kline, he progressed quickly in the next three years with the club. He progressed so much that another Slovenian team, NK Dravograd, which featured a coach that Kline called one of the “best coaches that ever coached on our grounds” in Mihajlo Petrovic, signed him.

Under Petrovic, Kline said he learned more in one season than he had in the previous 10 years of his career.

“Looking back and thinking about it, it must have been one of the best seasons in my career,” said Kline. “I was only 23 but I led a group of guys that were mostly even younger than me and in that season we made a lot of surprises as underdogs.”

As an underdog and a part of Dravograd, Kline experienced what he called the turning point of his career. In the second leg of the final of the Slovenian Cup, Kline dished out three assists en route to the win.

The three assists did not go unnoticed, as three other Slovenian teams put in offers for Kline in the offseason. He signed with NK Domzale, a team he played with for two seasons. His team reached second place in the National Championship in both seasons, which inspired both the national team and Russian Premier League squad, FC Shinnik, to have interest in Kline. Kline didn’t hold off from signing with Shinnik when the offer came through.

“I remember calling my dad … and telling him about the contract and I will never forget his words,” reflected Kline. “[He said] ‘I’m really proud of you, my son, you’ve worked really hard for this and you truly deserve this. But, never allow yourself to forget about your education and your future … therefore, read, read, read.’ Imagine telling that to a kid that just signed his first [professional] contract?”

Kline embraced himself in the Russian culture and language. He explained that he made numerous new friends and became very accustomed to the Russian way of life.

“I learned about many really great aspects of playing abroad, being sort of famous in town,” said Kline. “But [I] also experienced many downfalls about being a foreigner when things didn’t go as well as we and fans hoped for. “

His next move was to Greece to play in the Super League to compete for Veria FC. Right from the beginning, Kline noticed a culture change. Even three years later, Kline explained that playing and living in Greece was extremely short of ideal. Additionally, he said his experience was anything but pleasant.

“The country is in real chaos, nothing is done the way it is supposed to and also some of the people running the club knew more about everything but soccer,” said Kline.

On a competitive level, Kline was also smitten about how the league was nothing like he imagined it to be.

“Except [for] the top three teams in Panathinaikos, Olympiakos and AEK, soccer was really terrible with very few passes and players simply just playing hard and fighting on the field,” said Kline. “After the torturing season was over, they finally agreed to let me go.”

Veria would be the last professional team Kline would ever play for.

Rebranding Kline

Though Kline signed a pre-contract with a Holland team, SC Heerenveen, the results of a series of medical examinations kept him from ever signing an official contract. According to Kline, the first examinations revealed something was wrong with his heart. Upon a second examination, a heart condition was confirmed. Kline said that a Dr. Myshali from Israel operated on him.

“He did an awesome job, and today I can do anything without limitations,” said Kline.

Still, Kline wasn’t forgetful of the pain he went through after he was told for the first time about his condition as it ripped him away from his career.

“Just like that, in a couple of hours, my career ended and my life twisted upside down,” said Kline. “I was … completely out of life for almost six months, all I could do was lie in bed and walk around a bit. [I] lost more than 40 pounds and all the muscles.

“When I tell people about the misfortune that I had that caused me to end the career and doing something I absolutely loved doing, they always feel sorry for me or something like that,” Kline added. “Don’t get me wrong, I sure miss playing competitive soccer as hell, but on the other hand, I honestly can say the two and a half years after the surgery have been simply the best years of my life.”

While Kline knew he could never play professionally again, he went out to try and change the way he connected with the sport which included rebranding himself.

“When you’re forced to lie in bed for all that time, barely able to move, you have  a lot of time to think about things, past experiences, future goals and wishes,” said Kline. “That is when I kind of realized that as soon as I was back on my feet, this is what I wanted to do with my life moving forward.

Within a short amount of time, Kline found his way to UMass as a member of the Isenberg School of Management this year. After his nine months, Kline is thrilled that he made the decision to come to the University as it has landed him an internship at IMG Academies.

Kline didn’t try to compete for the Minutemen soccer team due to age rules and he didn’t try to get back into the professional leagues because of his medical history. Instead, Kline focused on reinventing himself and continuing to align himself with the sport that he adored ever since Basten’s goal 23 years ago.

Herb Scribner can be reached at [email protected]