Fijian football has many glorious moments to remember – 2016 is certainly a year that the Fijian football community will remember with joy. The Rio Olympics were the site of a fantastic adventure; led by their wonder boy Roy Krishna, Fiji faced the world and had the chance to experience the most important sporting event in the world – for the first time Fiji took part in the Men’s football tournament.
At the Pacific Games 2015 in Papua New Guinea – a tournament that also served as a qualifier for the Olympic Games in football – Fiji was in a group with Micronesia, Vanuatu and Tahiti. The Fijians drew with Vanuatu and Tahiti and recorded a massive 38-0 win over Micronesia, with Atonio Tuivuna scoring 10 goals in a single match. The results qualified Fiji for both the knockout stages of Olympic qualifying and the Pacific Games – Tahiti, the team that finished first in the group, could not compete for a place in the Olympic Games as they are not members of the IOC (International Olympic Committee). Despite losing to New Caledonia in the Pacific Games semi-finals, Fiji would have something bigger to celebrate.
While Vanuatu faced New Zealand in one semi-final, Fiji took on Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby looking for a place in the grand final, which would side the winner of the spot in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. A hat-trick from Napolioni Qasevakatini earned Fiji a 3-1 win over the hosts to qualify for the final, which would decide which team would travel to Brazil. In the other semi-final Vanuatu lost 2-0 to New Zealand, but Vanuatu appealed to the competition organisers that New Zealand had used an irregular player. The match was awarded to Vanuatu as it was confirmed that the New Zealand player Deklan Wynne still did not have New Zealand nationality – the player was born in South Africa.
In the final match neither Vanuatu nor Fiji scored in regular time and extra time. The Olympic Games entry had to be decided on penalties, and despite the failures of Napolioni Qasevakatini and Garish Prasad, Vanuatu also missed two penalties through Junior Vava and Bong Kalo. The final two penalties decided the fate of both sides: Remy Kalsarap missed for Vanuatu, but Jale Dreloa confirmed his penalty for Fiji and made history for his country.
Fiji celebrated a fantastic performance, but they knew they would have a very tough challenge in 2016 when they would play against some of the best youth players in the world in Brazil. The Fijian squad had a period of trainings for the Olympics in Spain – also playing against some local teams – and decided which three senior players would join the U23 squad for the historic participation in the Olympics: Simione Tamanisau, Roy Krishna and Alvin Singh.
Fiji was unlucky in the draw for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament: they were grouped alongside the then Olympic champions Mexico, the powerhouse Germany and South Korea. The first match of the Fijians could have been much better: they faced South Korea in Salvador and conceded only one goal in the first 45 minutes of the game, but their stamina was not at the level of the South Koreans, who scored seven more goals in the second half, including one from Tottenham’s star Son Heung-Min – a tough 8-0 defeat was the debut of Fijian football at the Olympics.
The second match of Fiji was against Mexico again in Salvador – and it was when the magic happened. Mexico had more possession of the ball in the initial stages of the game, but in a rapid movement Fiji could retain the ball; Iosefo Verevou saw Krishna upfront marked by the Mexican defenders, as he had no better option he sent a long pass from the middle of the park for the Fijian striker – Mexican defenders and his goalkeeper failled and allowed Krishna to head the ball towards the goal, as the goalkeeper left his posts, the ball quietly entered to nets to the delight of the Fijians and to many Brazilians supporting the Bula Boys in the stadium that started to shout ‘Krishna, Krishna, Krishna‘ celebrating the moment.
The Fijians managed to hold the lead for the rest of the first half – Fiji won Mexico, the reigning Olympic champions, 1-0 in 45 minutes of football. Much to the chagrin of the home crowd and Fijian football, Mexico managed to score five goals in the final part of the match, proving that the Fijian side at times do not seem particularly well phisically prepared for the high demands of this competition.
The Fijians would have one last chance against Germany in Belo Horizonte. The Germans proved too strong for the Fijians when Max Meyer, Serge Gnabry and Nils Petersen destroyed the Fijians’ defence in the first half and scored a total of five goals. In the second half the same players continued their productive form and also scored five more goals for Germany to end the game with a strong 10-0 victory over the Fijians. The best moment of the game for Fiji was when Siomione Tamanisau saved a penalty from starlet Max Meyer.
Fiji finished in the bottom of their group, suffering a total of 23 goals and scoring just once through the historic header of Roy Krishna. Despite suffering so many goals in the competition, which was to be expected given the different technical level of their opponents compared to Fijians, it was one of the best moments ever of the Fijian football to share the same pitch of players as Son Heung-Min, Serge Gnabry and Julian Brandt.
This article is part of the series ‘Brazil and Oceania: a Football connection‘.