In the days when Australia ruled the roost in Oceania, there was rarely room for any of the Pacific island nations to make any great waves in the region. With Australia's move to the Asian Football Confederation, however, prospects for a number of the stronger Pacific nations are looking a lot better. This is particularly true for Fiji.
Fiji, once ranked at 94 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking but now sporting a more modest ranking of 144, entered the long road to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with greater hopes than usual. They stormed through their group at the recent South Pacific Games in Samoa, which doubled as a qualifying tournament for the Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying group. Thumping 16 goals past Tuvalu in a group game, and topping their section by goal difference from New Caledonia, with whom they drew 1-1 in their round-robin game, they must have looked a formidable prospect to their competitors.
After seeing off Vanuatu 3-0 in the semi-final, the Fijians faced the Caledonians once more in the final, and were considered favourites to take the trophy. Nevertheless, in a tightly-contested battle, New Caledonia came out 1-0 winners.
Consolation for Fiji's prolific striker Osea Vakatalesau arrived in the shape of the contract he was offered at ambitious New Zealand club YoungHeart Manawatu following the tournament. Few of Fiji's players get the opportunity to ply their trade overseas, although a significant exception is veteran striker Esala Masi, who has had a long and successful career in Australia.
Fiji's second place was enough to qualify them for the four-team Oceania round-robin. However, their campaign got off to a controversial start, with their first match, away to New Zealand, postponed due to a dispute over the presence of goalkeeper Simione Tamanisau. Their first game, therefore, was their home tie against the same opposition, and the Fijians slumped to a 2-0 defeat.
Perhaps the key moment in the Fijians' campaign was an exciting 3-3 draw at home to their South Pacific Games nemesis New Caledonia, in which they took a 2-0 lead before being pegged back by Didier Chambaron's side. "We missed too many chances [against New Caledonia] when we were 2-0 up," reflected Fiji's coach Juan Carlos Buzzetti. "If we had converted some easy chances to make it 3-0, 4-0, then the game was over."
That disappointment was followed by a disaster: a 4-0 loss to the same opponents, which effectively ended their hopes of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. With an away trip to group leaders New Zealand on November 19 to come, the Fijians have only the remotest chance of progressing.
Like many other South Pacific nations, Fiji has benefited under FIFA's Goal Programme. An initial grant, approved in 2001, led to the opening of the Dr. M. S. Sahu Khan Football School in Ba, a complex featuring two high-quality football pitches, in February 2003. A further initiative, the construction of an Association headquarters and technical centre in Nadawa, is in the process of completion.
With such infrastructure in place, there might be a more cheerful story for Fiji on the way to Brazil 2014.