Fiji building to reclaim former glory

Fiji continues to make forward strides as the Pacific nation seek to build momentum for next year’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers on home soil. One of the largest Pacific nations in the 11-member Oceania Football Confederation, Fiji has a strong and long-standing history of achievement, although their status as one of the regional leaders has wavered over the past decade. However, a recent leap of 15 spots on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking has lifted Fiji to 141 and solidified the nation’s position as the highest-ranked OFC team, aside from regional colossus New Zealand.

Their soaring status suggests Fiji can make a return to the glory days of previous decades. The nation, which consists of two main land masses amid an expansive archipelago of some 500 islands and islets, has a proud and colourful football history. Their FIFA World Cup journey stretches back to 1981 and pre-dates other Pacific Island nations by 11 years. The Fijians have enjoyed success against New Zealand over the decades but by far their most famous scalp of all was a 1-0 win over Australia on a baking hot Nadi day in November 1988.

Building for success
Having not taken to the field in a full international for the best part of three years, the national team has suddenly found itself enjoying a flurry of activity. Three wins during July and August, one against Vanuatu and two against Samoa, provided the preparatory base on which Fiji’s Brazil 2014 campaign is being built. The match against Vanuatu two months ago in Labasa marked the nation’s first outing since their tilt at reaching South Africa concluded in October 2008.

In recent weeks Fiji clocked up five further full international matches due to their participation in the 14th edition of the Pacific Games. Despite finishing fourth under coach Gurjit Singh, Fiji will take a number of positives from their experience in New Caledonia. The sole team amid the11-nation competition to go through the group stage undefeated, Fiji, without talismanic striker Roy Krishna, then succumbed to an injury-time defeat against Solomon Islands. That semi-final loss was followed by a 2-1 loss against Tahiti, with the Fijians battling through the majority of the match with ten men after an early red card.

On the personnel front, Fiji benefited by having six internationals in the Papua New Guinea based Hekari United side, which competed at last year’s FIFA Club World Cup. A host of players are also expected to be retained from the squad which featured in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Among them are striker Osea Vakatalesau, who will have fond memories of FIFA World Cup qualifying matches with his South Africa 2010 goal tally of 12 unsurpassed globally, and talented defender Alvin Singh.

With next year’s Oceania zone FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament to be played entirely on home soil, the Fijians will undoubtedly fancy their chances of a top-four finish that will secure progression to the region's third and final stage. The second stage will see Fiji entertain New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu, as well as the winner of Round One. Three years ago, Fiji reached the final four in Oceania and were the only team to defeat New Zealand in the All Whites' successful run to South Africa 2010. Achieving similar results amid a strong Brazil 2014 campaign would likely see Fiji close rapidly on their all-time highest ranking of 94 attained in July 1994.