Oceania Football Center had the opportunity of a telephone interview with the head coach of Fiji’s national team, Flemming Serritslev before the highly anticipated World Cup qualifying tournament in Qatar. He is a man with great ambitions for Fiji and is very passionate about the development of football in Oceania.
How is the weather down there?
“It’s a nice climate down here. There has been a rainy season but other than that it’s great.”
“It’s a lovely country.” – Flemming adds.
How has preparations for the upcoming tournament been going?
“The preparations have gone well all in all. We have had a lot of training sessions together. But the Covid-19 pandemic has inhibited us from playing any matches. Last year we had 6 months where all sports were on lockdown. I have been here for 2 years but we are yet to play a game. It is our biggest challenge. It can be difficult to judge our level compared to everyone else when we can’t play matches.”
New Zealand is the only team with match preparation for the upcoming tournament.
“Exactly. I think we are on the same level as the other teams except New Zealand. The other teams haven’t been able to play matches as well. Even though several of the other countries’ domestic leagues have begun. That said, I can’t complain. We as a national team have better circumstances than many teams in Europe because we are able to prioritise our national team’s training sessions during our domestic league season. We just had a training camp from the 17th of January until the 2nd of February. We are practising together again now and have been from the 21st of February until the tournament begins. That is extraordinary conditions.”
The duration of the club competitions in Fiji are also shorter.
“Exactly. If the national team is playing, the club competitions are played without the national team players. In order for the clubs to postpone their schedule they must have at least 5 national team players. At this moment it’s only Lautoka that has that amount of players.”
There were problems with two of the national team players (Beniamino Mateinaqara and Dave Radrigai). What was the issue in that regard?
“I had to suspend them both because of some very unprofessional behaviour. I can’t say more on that subject.”
Which of your players are the centre of your team. Is there anybody you want to highlight?
“Not specifically because I think our team is very good. It’s a very talented and young team.”
And Roy Krishna is back!
“Yes. He is our oldest player, you know.” – Flemming says with a slight laugh.”
“He is a skilled player. He unfortunately suffered a long standing injury in his club ATK Mohun Bagan in India. He has been used as a substitute the last couple of games though and is expected to start the next one. Furthermore he was crowned Player of the Tournament in India last year.”
It’s a mystery to me how he never made it to a big league in Europe.
“Yes, because he could easily have made it.”
What is Fiji’s target for the upcoming tournament?
“We want to win the tournament! I think the teams are equally competitive in this tournament. I know New Zealand are the favourites but I played them with Papua New Guinea and we dare to go toe-to-toe with them. They play another type of football now as opposed to then which resembles the way we play football. But we have better circumstances of realising our playing style compared to New Zealand because of our player availability we have in Fiji due to New Zealand’s players playing in foreign leagues.”
You say that Fiji has a similar playing style. What do you mean?
“We try to play a quick passing game where we get the ball forward fast whenever possible. I think the team has adopted that well.”
Like a direct style with counterpressing?
“Yes, but we don’t play long balls forward. We play direct but the ball stays on the ground.”
Don’t you think that can be difficulties against a team like New Zealand who knows their positions on the pitch?
“It might be but I’m an optimist so I think we can match them! We respect them but we aren’t afraid of playing them.”
We saw years ago that New Zealand dominated more because of their opponent’s fear of them. As a Dane I like to compare it to FC Copenhagen 10 years ago where every opponent defended low and was afraid of playing their own game. That’s not the case anymore neither with New Zealand or FCK.
“You are absolutely right. That was the case with Brøndby IF in many years as well. Most teams were afraid of playing when they played at Brøndby Stadion. I think that if you’re afraid of playing your opponent head on then you have already lost the game more or less. I think we have a good team with great players. Time will tell if my optimism is justified.”
We are looking forward to seeing Fiji in action. I think with you as the coach that the team can go deep in the tournament?
“We will see. There are other strong opponents than only New Zealand. We are in a group with New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea as well (PNG is Flemming’s old team). New Caledonia play very good football and they have several players in France. But like New Zealand it can make their preparations difficult. I think it’s a clear advantage to have your players in one place where they can be accessible for the national team’s preparations like in Fiji. Roy Krishna is the only player outside Fiji at the moment and because he’s a forward it is easier for him to adapt to the playing style in a shorter amount of time. That said during the Covid-19 pandemic we have only managed to do individual training. I practised with Roy Krishna and I must say he is a skillful player.” – I can sense some modesty in describing the superstar Roy Krishna.
Now that we mentioned FC Copenhagen and Brøndby IF earlier it is also worth mentioning the 5 players New Zealand are playing in Danish leagues if we reference their latest squad selection.
“Joe Bell who just joined Brøndby I must say is a formidable player.”
I was actually lucky enough to watch his first two games on both TV and live. His performance is positive.
“It is very positive.” – It’s easy to feel Flemming’s excitement for Brøndby’s new star man.
There is a player from Kolding IF (Dalton Wilkins). It must be great for you to follow him (Kolding is one of Flemming’s old clubs). Have you been in touch with him or other of the players playing in Denmark?
“No, not directly but I have watched all of New Zealand’s matches.”
How do you see the future for, not only Fijian, but Oceanian players in general if they want to develop abroad?
“First and foremost I have to say that the Australian clubs have been lazy. They haven’t scouted Oceania well enough. We have a lot of good players who could play in Australia and Asia and some in Europe. You are going to see an incredibly skilled forward this month whose name is Sairusi Nalaubu. I am certain most clubs would want him. He would be at any point be able to play in Europe. Many people think that Oceania is a 3rd world continent when it comes to football. Of course we haven’t got the same level as in Europe but we really do have talents. Not only in Fiji but on the islands in general.”
Could Denmark be a stepping stone for Oceanic players in the future?
“We could. We have 4 or 5 players in our team who could play in the Danish Superliga. Unfortunately the players don’t have the same training and match conditions like the European players have. If the players had the opportunity to develop in a professional environment they would have excellent conditions to develop into top players.”
It would be amazing if Football had more attention in Oceania. A game like rugby is huge here and Fiji is dominating the sport globally (back-to-back defending gold medalists in Rugby 7’s).
“Yes. Rugby is the biggest competitor to football in the area. It’s only in the Solomon Islands where football is the biggest. They are totally crazy about football.”
Solomon Islands is the best ranked team in Oceania (142) after New Zealand (111).
“They have great players. It helps that football is their main sport. Football unfortunately plays second fiddle in Fiji.”
What do you think of Nabil Begg’s chances of turning pro?
“Nabil Begg is the biggest talent in Fiji. He is only 17 years and immensely talented. He will most certainly get far. We have a German technical director that has said that Nabil easily could play in the German U19 Bundesliga.”
He will be exciting to watch in the future. But no matter the talent, don’t you think players are running a huge risk, for example economically, by going to Europe if they don’t succeed? How do we prepare for situations like that?
“Our centre forward, Sairusi, runs 100 metres in 10.2 seconds. Give him half a year in a top professional club and he would easily play in the Danish Superligaen. I think he might even have a shot right now. The same for Nabil Begg. Give him some time and he could play in a top club in Europe.” – Implicitly Flemming doesn’t see the big risk I’m talking about because of the players’ huge potential.
“It’s a question about getting the chance. In Fiji and Oceania in general they play amateur football so they don’t have the same possibilities for development.”
There are some professional/semi-professional players in Oceania.
“There are some who don’t do anything other than football but I wouldn’t call them professionals. The clubs don’t make training available in the morning. The paid players meet at the same time as the rest of the team at 4 PM. The circumstances aren’t great for those with talent.”
What is your prediction for the upcoming tournament?
“I have no idea!” – Flemming says laughing.
“It’s only New Zealand who have played matches. You mean besides them?”
Yes, that’s what I mean. New Zealand are the favourites.
“Of course New Zealand are the favourites but not having every player available in their first match can make life difficult for them. They should have a full roster when they play us in the second game. I think it’s unfair for New Zealand. You would think I would be happy with a weakened Kiwi side but I want to play them at their best. That way we can test our level against the best. It is an unfair decision from UEFA to not let every team have their best players available. In the recent AFCON the European clubs had to make do with sending their profiles to the continental tournament. I think it would be reasonable to expand the FIFA window for at least a week so Oceania has better conditions. It’s not that many players we are talking about. In Fiji we are running the risk of not having Roy Krishna available until the 21st of March which means he potentially will miss two matches.”
I agree. Last question: Can you sing God Bless Fiji – Fiji National Anthem – by heart and will you be singing the anthem at the games?
“Not yet but I will make sure to learn it.”
You have 14 days to learn it!
“I have been practising a little already.” – Flemming says with a smile.
*The interview was made by Danish contributor Axel Ljungquist.
See the full squad Serritslev called-up to represent Fiji at FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.