Fiji are set to invest part of their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ aspirations in youth, with a considerable chunk of their training squad having featured in the recent OFC U-23 tournament. Under renowned journeyman coach Carlos Buzzetti, Fiji are seeking a return to their former glory at continental level, commencing with next month’s Brazil 2014 qualifiers in the Solomon Islands.
The Fijians will begin their campaign in the opening days of June as Round 2 of Oceania qualifying commences. They have been dealt a difficult task drawn into Group B alongside regional kings New Zealand, tournament hosts Solomon Islands, and the fast emerging Papua New Guinea. The other group comprises Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Samoa and Tahiti, with the four semi-finalists to advance to the third and final stage of continental qualifying. On offer to the victor of the eight-nation Round 2 stage, which doubles as the OFC Nations Cup, will be a berth at next year’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
For many years Fiji were far and away the most accomplished of the Pacific Island nations, with the game having well established roots throughout the archipelago. The Fiji Football Association was founded in 1938, with the national team debuting in FIFA World Cup qualifying in 1981, 11 years prior to any other Pacific Islands nation.
While yet to come close to reaching the world’s greatest stage, Fiji have enjoyed numerous memorable moments in the sun. None are more famous than a remarkable 1-0 home win against Australia on a bumpy Prince Charles Park in Nadi one warm spring day in 1988. Under redoubtable coach Billy Singh, Fiji continued to press their more fancied continental opponents in the ensuing years, only to see fellow Pacific nations develop and eventually catch up.
Four years ago, Fiji ended up well off the pace in Oceania qualifying, finishing third in the final stage. They did however boast two notable feats. A 2-0 win over New Zealand on the final matchday proved to be the only defeat suffered by the All Whites across their entire 11-match 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign, a run which includes their three matches in South Africa. Meanwhile, powerfully-built striker Osea Vakatalesau topped the 2010 FIFA World Cup global scoring chart with 12 goals, and his partnership with impressive Waitakere United striker Roy Krishna could prove key to their 2014 hopes.
Fiji’s most recent international outing very nearly resulted in an unexpected fairytale. Their U-23 team came within a whisker of overturning New Zealand and qualifying for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. Leading the way was captain Esava Naqeleca, who was named player of the tournament last month in New Zealand, having already accrued five years of international experience.
As a result, national team coach Buzzetti called up nine of the U-23 squad for a recent 31-man two-week training camp in Ba. “The players have shown a positive approach as far as the OFC Nations Cup is concerned,” Buzzetti told FIFA.com. “Fiji is in a very tough pool and we cannot afford to underestimate any of our opponents. Competition will be tough but we are taking a positive approach and the players have promised to give their best.”
Buzzetti will take 26 players into another lengthy camp on 15 May prior to again whittling his squad down for the 11-day tournament in Honiara. The Uruguayan-born Buzzetti, well versed in Oceania football after a lengthy and successful stint in Vanuatu, will be looking to invoke the spirit of ’88 as he attempts to lead Fiji to a new chapter in what is a lengthy and proud history.