When the Socceroos take on Fiji at the Marden Sports Complex today, they will be taking on a nation that has proven to be a thorn in the side of Australia’s World Cup campaigns.
By Ben Coonan
When the Socceroos take on Fiji at the Marden Sports Complex today, they will be taking on a nation that has proven to be a thorn in the side of Australia-s World Cup campaigns.
Qantas Socceroo coach Frank Farina has always been the first to point out the perils of underestimating Oceania-s most successful island nation and with good cause.
The Fijians have caused their fair share of upsets since their FIFA accreditation in 1981 and when they line-up to face the Socceroos today, the scent of an upset will be wafting through the air.
Fiji is, habitually, a rugby nation. The Fijians are constantly achieving moderate to high success on the Rugby Union world stage and most recently came within minutes of upsetting Scotland at Rugby World Cup 2003.
In Union-s spin off code, Rugby 7-s, the Fijians are an unquestionable world force that is seldom paralleled by the likes of typical giants England, Australia and New Zealand.
Despite their overwhelming devotion to the 15 and 7 man games, Fiji has remained only a mediocre force in Oceania terms and has never really escalated from emerging nation status globally.
What Fiji do possess that many of their island friends do not is numbers.
With a population of almost 900 000, the Fijians already have the upper hand on many of their Oceanic opponents.
The populations of the Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu combined still do not register as high as Fiji-s, which emphasizes the advantage Fiji possess when assessing their much vaster talent pool.
This has directly affected Fiji-s successes over the years and to this day, they remain the only island nation to have played a national team outside of Oceania.
Those matches occurred as recently as 2001, when the Fijians accounted for the visiting Malaysian national team 4-1 and 2-0, before losing the final match of the series 2-1.
Twenty years earlier, the Fijians had achieved more success against Asian opposition when they avoided a single defeat in four World Cup qualification ties with Chinese Taipei and Indonesia.
This particular World Cup qualification campaign ended with the New Zealand All Whites earning a berth at Spain 82- and Fiji-s results against the World Cup finalists were far less convincing, as they included a 4-0 and 13-0 loss.
Since the double figure drubbings of the early eighties, Fiji has gone on to achieve credible success against Oceania-s top two.
In all, Fiji-s record against the perpetual powerhouses of Oceania is modest at best, but is still a marked improvement on the efforts of any other island nation.
It has been some time though, since the Fijians have sent shockwaves through FIFA-s youngest confederation.
Fiji last upset one of Oceania-s big two in August 1993, when the All Whites travelled to the Fiji islands for a three match friendly series.
Come the end of the sequence of matches, the Kiwis had failed to register a win against their less fancied opponents, having drawn matches two and three after going down 2-1 in the opener.
Five years previous to this, the Fijians were celebrating arguably their biggest ever win on the world stage.
In a two legged playoff with the Socceroos, in what was the first stage of qualifiers for Italia 90-, the Fijians snatched a late winner to cause one of the most monumental upsets in World Cup history. The Australians comprehensively overturned their 1-0 loss a week later when the pair met in Newcastle, running out 5-1 winners with Qantas Socceroo assistant coach Graham Arnold amongst the goalscorers.
Indeed, six matches and almost eleven years have passed since Fiji upset one of Oceania-s big two, but this is not to say that the Fijians have been without triumph in that time.
Primarily, Fiji-s success climaxed in July last year when they hosted, and won, the 2003 South Pacific Games.
Legions of fans fronted up to witness Fiji-s greatest ever victory, which culminated in a 2-0 win over New Caledonia in the final.
Earlier in the tournament, the Fijians had drawn with fellow OFC Nations Cup 2004 qualifiers Vanuatu and beaten Tahiti and the Solomon Islands 2-1.
Over 12 000 fans were present in Suva to witness the Fijians triumph and the smile on coach Tony Buesnel-s face was one of the highlights of the tournament.
At youth level, Fiji surprised many when they dumped New Zealand out of the qualifiers for the 2003 World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates, when they posted a 1-0 win on home turf in December 2002.
Upon advancing to the final playoff with Australia, the Fijians froze, eventually losing the two match series 15-0 on aggregate.
As far as the OFC Nations Cup is concerned, Fiji-s record is disappointing.
After claiming third place in Brisbane 98-, Fiji were a late withdrawal from Papeete 00- following political turmoil in their homeland.
When they returned to the Oceania stage for Auckland 02-, the Fijians looked a shadow of their usually determined selves, exiting at the group stage after suffering losses to Vanuatu and Australia.
The main positive to come out of Fiji-s Nations Cup campaigns was the emergence of Australian based attacker Esala Masi (pictured above).
Masi was discovered at Brisbane 98- by Australian National League team the Wollongong Wolves. Masi-s impressive tournament, highlighted by a goal against the Socceroos in Fiji-s opening game, warranted a contract with the NSW south coast side and paved the way for a successful stint in Australia-s top flight, where he was part of Wollongong's championship winning side in 19992000.
After leaving the Wolves at the end of the 1999/2000 season, Masi migrated north to play for Newcastle United in the 2000/01 season. At the close of the 2003/04 NSL campaign, Masi had amassed 202 appearances and 43 goals in the National League and was a part of Newcastle-s highly successful, but ultimately fruitless, campaigns in 2001/02 and 2002/03. Masi has not been Fiji-s only prized export though. Fellow goal scorer Veresa Toma enjoyed a stint as a professional some years ago when he signed with Singaporean club Geylang United.
Presently, midfield ace Raj Kumar plays in the Queensland state league for powerhouse club the Queensland Lions, only for passport difficulties to derail his chance of representing Fiji in Adelaide.
Fiji has proved time and time again that they are a side not to be underestimated. Whilst their form has not been altogether impressive coming into the tournament, the Socceroos can be assured that a Fijian upset is all that will be on the mind of their perennial island rivals today.
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