Nemani reminisces football days

Fiji National Sports Commission Chairman Mr Peter Mazey and the Permanent Secretary for Youth and Sports Maretino Nemani. Picture: SUPPLIED/FIJIAN PARLIAMENT MEDIA

THE national football team first participated in the FIFA World Cup qualification in 1982, however the 1988 campaign against the Australian Socceroos, especially the first leg on November 26, 1988 that was played at Prince Charles Park in Nadi is etched in the annals of local football history books.

The national football team was competing in the first round of the 1990 FIFA World Cup qualification against Australia.

Interestingly, the national football team was known as the Rothmans Fiji football team because of a sponsorship deal with tobacco giants, British American Tobacco.

The composition of the team was collectively experienced with a good mixture of local football stars from the respective districts.

Suva goalkeeper Tevita Lasaqa was the youngest team member, who was under 20 years of age while Ba’s star midfielder Meli Vuilabasa and Nadroga stalwart, Abraham Watkins were some of the experienced hands.

The Billy Singh-coached side was coming off a successful Melanesian Cup stint that was held in the Solomon Islands. Fiji defeated the hosts 3-1 in the final to claim their first title.

“The team training was based on a lot of individual sacrifice and discipline with a greater sense of national pride and responsibility to ensure the team achieved the best results for the country,” said Maritino Nemani.

Nemani, who was one of the co-captains; the other was the late Natokowaqa, Lautoka native and dual international Pita Dau.

In an effort to boost the national football team’s midfield, former Labasa wizard, Ivor Evans, who was plying his trade in Canada, was the only overseas based player roped in for the massive challenge that awaited.

The team bonding was key and part of our success, because the frequent call-up for camps to prepare for the 1988 international calendar provided the platform for a strong brotherhood and affiliation,” added Maritino. “It was our next home game, and although we used to wake up as early as four in the morning for our workouts, had runs in the scorching midday heat or practise matches in the afternoon from 5-6.30pm, it was purely fun.

“The chosen players were resilient, had a strong fighting power and would go the extra mile because at the end of the day, we were assembled to bring honour to our beautiful country,” enthused the permanent secretary for Youth and Sports.

“Such was the camaraderie among the players that even if things got a bit tough, especially when it concerned the tastebuds, someone would remark, “Hey, we came to play, not chow.”

According to Maritino, the late Billy Singh displayed a high degree of positivism and leadership, was always being motivational to the players and even went to the extent of accommodating each of the players needs if the governing body was not forthcoming. ”

Billy used to repeatedly drum in our heads only one thing — boys, if we beat Australia, we will go down in Fiji’s history books.”

Played in front of six thousand football fanatics in Nadi, and with an added motivation of five hundred Fijian dollars for each player if they won, a floating ball from the left flank by Lote Delai to the edge of the opposition’s box was cunningly dummied by Vimal Sami, who had two Socceroos defenders attention on him like a hawk, completely fooling them for the ball to land on Ravuama Madigi’s path, and his left footer surprised an out of sorts Jeff Oliver, who was the goalkeeper, in the second half.

Australia was defending from the hospital end of Prince Charles Park.

“At halftime, after being tied with them 0-0, it gave us more ammunition and hope to win. I will admit that they were superior technically, but we were more determined.”

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