Dawn of Fiji soccer

Ronish Kumar, Nadi | Tuesday, May 30, 2017
I scrambled through my afternoon schedule to make time for the eagerly anticipated second match between Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

After almost running to the gates to buy my ticket and tuck into a good spot, I was amused by the turnout, a bumper crowd had gathered at Lautoka's Churchill Park as early as 2.40pm with many others still strolling in on "Fiji time".

Then realisation dawned on me that Fiji soccer could easily gain more popularity among locals if the fans are treated to a regular feast of such international matches. With matches still due to come with New Caledonia and Estonia, I would ask - is this the new dawn of Fiji soccer?

As the match progressed, every player in the team seemed to have stuck to one game plan, patient soccer. In a very long time, it was good to see Fiji trying to keep composure and ball on the ground. We seemed to have utilised every player on the pitch, ball constantly going back to goalie, Koroi. Such patience with our national side was new to many spectators who hurled comments like "fir keeper ke deh duh" (give it to the goalie again).

Coach Christophe Gamel looked very animated on the touch line as he continually marshalled his troops. On one occasion coach Gamel held fourth official Finau Vulivuli's hand and showed her exactly how his midfielder was fouled (not sure if Vulivuli liked that though Gamel).

The atmosphere at the ground was electrifying, with our version of vuvuzelas echoing in the stands.

Then I looked to the left and at least five uniformed staff of a popular shopping outlet enjoyed the match from the rear of the new complex. The number of staff had grown to 11 midway through the second half at around 4.50pm. Maybe they had special tickets. Or did Fiji FA lose out on about $100 courtesy of the view from the rear of their office? Is it even allowed or legal? I would be happy to have my doubts clarified by Fiji FA or Lautoka Town Council. Fijian defender Remueru Takiate played a gallant match and hats off to Gamel who entrusted him with another start after Takiate had an off-day at the office in the first match. I would like to believe that Jackie (as known to his peers in school) is one of the most underrated footballers in the national side. If anyone knows Jackie, he has always been a catalyst of discipline and a role model to his peers - one of the first players to reach the training pitch and the last one to leave, when he started his career with the Tavua College soccer team.

Jackie has come through the age group ranks in Fiji soccer. Ask him, he must have represented every age group national soccer team on a consistent basis. Even now, when Gamel seems to be trying new combinations and implementing new philosophy of soccer with the national side, Jackie still fits the plan. While players did their job on Sunday and milked out a win, there is much work to be done by Fiji Football.

These players need to be playing together on a regular basis, which means regular internationals. I assume it is a costly affair to do so but if we really want to rub shoulders with the big cats, we have to pour in the dollars. Coach Gamel can only do so much with the best available players from the district teams but soccer cannot be a top down approach.

Fiji FA needs to dig deep into the grassroots level, better competitions at age group level, and more development needs to be done with underperforming teams in Premier and Super Premier divisions. Gamel did point out in the media recently that districts needed to improve player disciplines but it's not going to happen overnight.

All in all, as Sir Clive Woodword famously said, "a win is a win whether sweet or sour". It was a great effort by the national side. Well done Gamel and his technical staff, but an enormous amount to be done moving forward.

I am sure Sunday's match must have motivated some kids in the pavilion. Let's hope that Fiji soccer can keep up the momentum with more international matches.

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