Fiji has never seen a year like it. Their U-20 side made history by becoming the first team from the Melanesian nation to appear at a global tournament as they stepped out at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, even registering an unexpected maiden win, during May and June. Incredibly, their U-23 side then reprised barely imaginable qualification success just a month later by topping the Oceania region to reach the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
With the initial joy of that incremental progress now starting to subside, the focus is turning towards the senior national team. Mid next year will see the OFC Nations Cup take place, with the tournament also doubling as 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying for the region’s top eight nations. And if Fiji need inspiration, they need look no further than Tahiti, who were surprise winners in 2012, subsequently enjoying global attention thanks to an appearance at the FIFA Confederations Cup.
Fiji boast a rich history, with their World Cup journey dating all the way back to 1981 – longer than any other Pacific islands nation. While the past decade has seen indifferent results at times, the current era offers much reason for optimism. Following a lengthy period in mothballs, Fiji’s national team have finally begun their long preparation for next year’s continental challenge. And the results are already starting to pay dividends on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Fiji recently overwhelmed American Samoa and Tonga 6-0 and 5-0 respectively, with the results pushing them to 181 on the global ladder, behind only New Zealand and New Caledonia within Oceania.
“It was great to get back on the field after three years,” Fiji coach Carlos Buzzetti told FIFA.com. “It is difficult to get games organised, with many (Oceania) nations concentrating on youth qualifying teams. It is the same for us. We decided to work from the bottom up, and it has been very successful.”
*In addition to last month’s two international matches, Fiji played friendly matches against Wellington Phoenix. Around 12,000 fans turned out in Suva for the opening match, a significant attendance in a nation of around 850,000 inhabitants. Adding further interest was local pin-up Roy Krishna, who was making his first home appearance since becoming the nation’s only professional player. Quirkily, Krishna plies his trade for the Phoenix, but on this occasion naturally wore the colours of Fiji.
“Roy has developed significantly, and to see his development is unbelievable,” said Buzzetti. “I think he is ready for even bigger things. He is a huge difference for us up front.”
Fiji lost the opener 2-1 but soon found their feet in the second, securing a 2-2 draw against the New Zealand-based A-League club. “The Phoenix matches were good for us to play against a professional team, which is rare for us,” Buzzetti said. “We took a lot from those games. We could see in the games that the players have improved dramatically, both tactically and individually."
*Building for the future *
Buzzetti knows a thing or two about success in the Pacific. The veteran Uruguayan-born Australian has achieved much during a 15-year spell in Vanuatu and Fiji, overseeing several milestone moments in both nations’ football development. He is also a former Fiji Technical Director and his imprint is all over the national football academy, where so many of Fiji’s youth national team members learnt their trade.
“The national team players are more mature, and are more complete,” Buzzetti says when asked to compare the current generation to those wearing the national team shirt a decade ago. “The majority of the players are in the 20s, and they have all played in the junior national teams, and that has added to their international exposure. The new generation of players are quick and mature. The core of the players came from the last Olympic squad (of 2012), and also a couple from the current U-23 and U-20s.”
Now the challenge ahead is to take the senior team to another level, and Buzzetti says the basic building blocks are in place. “Last time (at the OFC Nations Cup) there was an immaturity which was costly,” he said. “In general the national team looks good. We have a good chance of giving everyone a real run for their money at the Nations Cup. I think we have a good chance of a top-four finish or even reaching the final.”