Fiji head to next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in the knowledge they are breaking new ground. Only once before has a team other than New Zealand or former Oceania Football Confederation member Australia represented the continent in the tournament; Tahiti in 2009.
Success in last May’s qualifying tournament means the fulfilment of a long-awaited dream for the Melanesian nation. Though one of the region’s more populace nations, and boasting a proud history in the game – Fiji were the first Pacific country to compete in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying – success of this magnitude has been a long time in the making.
But good things, they say, come to those that wait. Indeed the historic nature of the achievement was acknowledged by coach Ravinesh Kumar immediately after the triumph four months ago on home soil. “This is a victory I want to dedicate to all the coaches and teachers who have done so much to develop Fijian football over the past 60, 70 years.”
Planning for history
With next year’s U-20 World Cup to be held in New Zealand, Fiji have a unique opportunity to compete against the world’s best within their own continent. Not content to simply make up the numbers, Fiji have set about making the most of the 12-month lead time and plan to arrive in the Land of the Long White Cloud next May thoroughly prepared.
Most of the players are currently playing in the local national league against senior players, with a couple also plying their trade in New Zealand. Many of the players are graduates of the national academy, developed under the watchful eye off Oceania coaching icon Carlos Buzzetti. Several international matches are also planned – relatively uncommon for Oceania teams – with the inaugural OFC President’s Cup in New Zealand later this year among the highlights.
"These players are developing day by day and tournament by tournament,” Kumar said of his young squad. “With age, they have grown physically and their thinking ability has also improved. With the experience of playing alongside senior players, these U-20 reps can develop further.”
A guiding hand
Further indication of Fiji’s ambitions arrived this week in the form of former long-serving Australia coach Frank Farina who will serve as the team’s Technical Advisor. Most recently in charge of A-League club Sydney FC, Farina boasts a strong affinity and knowledge of Oceania football thanks in part to his six years at the helm of Australia, then still a member of OFC. Farina also guided the nation of his berth – Papua New Guinea – through their 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
“I have a lot of experience playing and coaching against Fijian sides,” said Farina. “I understand the culture and mentality and I grew up in Papua New Guinea.”
Farina says the benefits of Fiji’s qualification for New Zealand 2015 could be lasting. Indeed, Tahiti are a case in point. Many players from their 2009 U-20 World Cup campaign featured last year for the senior team in their historic FIFA Confederations Cup appearance in Brazil.
“It is a great test to see players at this level and that sort of experience you cannot buy,” Farina said. “It will be a great learning experience for the players and coaches as well. The more World Cups you play, the bigger and better you will see football become in Fiji. I hope we are able to show the world that Oceania countries can be competitive.”