For many years Fiji was the leading light among Pacific Islands’ nations. Their FIFA World Cup™ journey – which pre-dates all current Oceania nations, other than New Zealand – stretches back to 1981. Fiji even defeated former OFC powerhouse Australia in a memorable World Cup upset.
That was over a quarter of a century ago, and over the past decade the likes of Tahiti, New Caledonia and Solomon Islands all have enjoyed moments in the sun, leaving Fiji on the fringes of continental supremacy. But the football gods are suddenly smiling on Fiji again, with the past 12 months providing two incredible highs – a maiden appearance at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand and the forthcoming Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Rio. Now the senior national are eyeing an unimaginable hat-trick by winning the fast-approaching Oceania Nations Cup, and earning a berth at the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017.
The OFC Nations Cup, which will be played in Papua New Guinea, doubles as the second stage of Russia 2018 qualifying, with six of the eight nations to advance to the home-and-away third round. The eventual winner will tackle a CONMEBOL opponent for a ticket to Russia 2018.
*Youthful infusion *
Fiji’s senior team, now under the experienced hand of former Australia coach Frank Farina, has received a boost in recent times thanks to the production line of talent emanating from its impressive national academy. Just under 12 months ago, Fiji not only qualified for the U-20 World Cup – their first FIFA tournament – but they defied expectations by securing an impressive 3-0 win over Honduras. Almost immediately after New Zealand 2015 came equally unexpected qualification for Rio 2016.
Understandably the national team now contains a fair sprinkling of young players. But central defender Alvin Singh, one of the team’s most experienced campaigners, says the side remain well-balanced and in good shape to rediscover some of their glory from decades past.
“We are well aware of what Fiji was like back then (in previous years), and we want to bring that back,” Singh, who has featured in two previous World Cup campaigns, told FIFA.com. “We used to be one of the top nations in the Pacific, but now other nations have caught up to us and this Nations Cup is a good chance to get back to the top.
“Seeing the U-20 boys and the Olympic team qualify is motivation for us. The national team hasn’t achieved anything for a long time, and the young teams’ performance is a big motivation.
“Last year was a huge moment for Fijian football. We have many of the young guys from that team in our side. They couldn’t believe that they made it (qualification).
“This team is well balanced, with heaps of young players, and some experience as well. We want to go to the (continental) final this year because we have the team (to do so).”
Fiji will open their campaign against Oceania elite New Zealand, followed by further group outings against Vanuatu and the brilliant but unpredictable Solomon Islands. And Singh says his side will benefit from the tournament being played in a fellow Melanesian nation where the environment and culture are similar.
Nevertheless, Singh, who played has previously played in Papua New Guinea for crack local outfit Hekari United – a stint which included the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup – believes the weather will still provide a challenge. “It is really hot there even compared to Fiji, but we have been training in hot weather,” he said. “For games against New Zealand with their cold climate, it will benefit us.”
*Kiwi connection *
The first up challenge against a New Zealand side in transition on the opening day next Saturday remains an intriguing match-up. “I’m not aware of the (form of the) New Zealand team,” says Singh. “But New Zealand are New Zealand and always play good football. It will be tough, but I’m sure all Island nations are ready to go.”
Fiji, of course, boasts a not-so-secret weapon in the form of star striker Roy Krishna. As the only Pacific Islands player in Australia’s professional A-League, Krishna is a beacon for young aspirants across the Pacific. Playing for Wellington Phoenix, the A-League’s lone New Zealand team, Krishna will also have some insight into the All Whites heading into the opener.
“Most of the boys look up to Roy, he brings professionalism to the team, and when he speaks everyone listens,” Singh said. “The young guys are motivated simply by playing alongside Roy.