Fijian football has never seen a period like it.
By this time next month, Fiji will have added a maiden appearance at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament to last year’s successful debut at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
Throw in a strong showing thus far in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying, and it all adds up to a year of barely believable accomplishments.
The upcoming Olympic campaign in Brazil will be a massive challenge for Fiji, where the draw has done them few favours. The Melanesians have been grouped alongside three nations who all boast a strong focus on youth development – reigning Olympic champions Mexico, World Cup holders Germany and London 2012 bronze medallists Korea Republic.
Fiji, however, proved their doubters wrong at New Zealand 2015, securing a famous 3-0 win against Honduras – Oceania’s first at that level since the 2003 U-20 World Cup. Up to 12 of the side from New Zealand 2015 are set to feature in Brazil, with that group of graduates to make up the vast bulk of the 18-man squad – a roster which will also include three overage players, headlined by Pacific Islands’ poster-boy Roy Krishna.
Fiji were Oceania’s leading island nation during the 1980s and 90s prior to the rapid growth of their neighbouring countries, thus making recent developments all the more welcome. Now, after a period of stagnation, football is enjoying significant momentum in a nation where Rugby grabs many of the headlines.
“In terms of development for Fiji, local football has gone through the roof,” Fiji coach Frank Farina said.
“In just 12 months football has grown because of the U-20 World Cup. No one expected the team to do well at all, but we were 20 minutes away from the second round. A few weeks later the team qualified for Rio, and now we have advanced in the next stage of World Cup qualifying.
“And I think largely due to the success of the team at the U-20 World Cup, Oceania now has two spots for the U-20 and U-17 World Cup. So there is real impetus and the whole profile of Fiji football has lifted. In the last year, or year and a half, we now have academies started up on the back of that success. Fiji football is growing and it is good to see.”
Farina knows a thing or two about the standards required at the pinnacle of international football. Farina coached Australia for six years in a successful period which included two FIFA Confederations Cups and the 2004 Olympic Football Tournament.
Many will regard Fiji as rank outsiders in Brazil. And Farina is among those tempering expectations among an excitable public buoyed by last year’s win in New Zealand. Indeed the nation has never won a medal of any description in any sport at the Olympic Games.
“Fiji is a small island nation, and it is a new tournament for us, which is a step up again from the U-20s,” said Farina. “If we are realistic – and a lot of people [here] have high expectations which are not reality – the reality is, as I said before the U-20 World Cup, it is about credibility. And it is about being realistic.
“We are not the Fiji Rugby 7s side who are the world champions. We want to put in a good performance, not be embarrassed, and be credible. That is reality, and some people, who think we will go there and win a medal, don’t understand that. We will gain a lot of experience which will be beneficial for the national team. Like I say to people, don’t confuse ambition with ability.
“But sometimes strange things can happen,” Farina added, referencing Fiji’s breakthrough U-20 win last year. “Anything can happen on a football field, as long as you prepare well.
“It’s all stepping stones. In four or five years, the national team will be strong because of the experience gained by all this international exposure. These achievements also drag along all those younger kids out there who can now dream big.”