Fiji reached the Rio 2016 men’s soccer tournament for the first time, albeit in controversial circumstances.
Now the islanders are looking to break the record for the number of Olympians entered by a nation with a population less than 1 million.
Fiji are the first country other than Australia or New Zealand to represent the continent of Oceania at the Olympic soccer tournament. The under-23 men’s side advanced to next year’s Rio Olympics after a penalty shootout victory over Vanuatu.
The Bula Boys were due to meet New Zealand in the final of the OFC Olympic qualifying tournament but after defeating Vanuatu 2-0 in the semi-final the Kiwis were unceremoniously dismissed from the tournament due to the fielding of an ineligible player due to his nationality.
The decision was made when New Zealand defender Deklan Wynne, who was born in South Africa, was deemed ineligible just hours before the final against the Fijians by an Oceania Football Confederation disciplinary committee.
“The Committee has found that New Zealand fielded an ineligible player in the match against Vanuatu held on 10 July 2015,” an OFC statement read. “The Committee has declared that New Zealand has forfeited the match against Vanuatu with a 0-3 result, and therefore Vanuatu proceed to the final match of the OFC Olympic Qualifying Tournament against Fiji.”
It was Vanuatu who lodged the complaint that scuppered the Kiwi’s plans at such short notice. The ruling angered NZF chief executive Andy Martin who said: “Given the circumstances regarding the process around the decision, Sunday’s Olympic qualifying final should have been postponed.”
“Representations have been made to OFC, FIFA and the Pacific Games Council supported by NZ Olympic Committee and Sport New Zealand. We will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that any final decision is only reached after a proper and fair process has been carried out,” added martin in a message that suggested that New Zealand’s fight was no over.
Fiji found out they would be playing Vanuatu on the morning of the final, a deciding game that pitted two teams against each other who had never qualified for the Olympics. After 120 goalless minutes in Port Moresby, Jale Dreola scored the decisive spot-kick that sent Fiji into rapturous celebrations and to Rio 2016.
“We were preparing to play New Zealand in the morning and then we find out it’s Vanuatu, but it didn’t make any difference to us,” Fiji hero Dreola said.
“Since I was at school I used to be good at taking penalties, so I told the boys I was confident and I wanted to take it. Going to Rio was my aim,” he added.
At the Olympic tournament the Fijians have been drawn against three strong sides. In Group C they will come up against South Korea, Mexico and Germany. For soccer though, the games represents a huge opportunity for further growth in the sport.
After the relative success of the 2015 U-20 World Cup Fiji are ready to move on the next level. At the tournament in New Zealand a year ago, the Bula Boys recovered from an 8-1 drubbing against Germany to defeat Honduras 3-0. In the final group game Fiji were in with a shout of reaching the knockouts but conceded three times in the closing stages during a 3-0 defeat to Uzbekistan which sent them home.
“In terms of development for Fiji, local football has gone through the roof,” Fiji coach Frank Farina told FIFA.com. “In just 12 months football has grown because of the U-20 World Cup. No one expected the team to do well at all, but we were 30 minutes away from the second round. A few weeks later the team qualified for Rio, and now we have advanced in the next stage of World Cup qualifying.
Adding: “And I think largely due to the success of the team at the U-20 World Cup, Oceania now has two spots for the U-20 and U-17 World Cup. So there is real impetus and the whole profile of Fiji football has lifted. In the last year, or year and a half, we now have academies started up on the back of that success. Fiji football is growing and it is good to see.”
Many will regard Fiji as rank outsiders in Brazil. And Farina is among those, tempering expectations among an excitable public buoyed by last year’s win in New Zealand. “Fiji is a small island nation, and it is a new tournament for us, which is a step up again from the U-20s,” said Farina.
“We are not the Fiji Rugby 7s side who are the world champions. We want to put in a good performance, not be embarrassed, and be credible. That is reality, and some people, who think we will go there and win a medal, don’t understand that. We will gain a lot of experience that will be beneficial for the national team. Like I say to people, don’t confuse ambition with ability.
“But sometimes strange things can happen,” Farina added, referencing Fiji’s breakthrough U-20 win last year. “Anything can happen on a football field, as long as you prepare well.
“It’s all stepping stones. In four or five years, the national team will be strong because of the experience gained by all this international exposure. These achievements also drag along all those younger kids out there who can now dream big.”
Fiji have never won a medal in the Olympic games but are seeking to earn their own place in history by entering the most athletes into an Olympic games from a nation with a population fewer than 1 million. According to OlympStats.com, Luxembourg is the only nation with fewer than 1,000,000 people to have 40 or more competitors at a single Olympics.
In 1952 Luxembourg entered 52 Olympians, a record Fiji can break. The islanders are favorites to win the rugby sevens tournament while golfer Vijay Singh could be the oldest man in the first Olympic men’s golf tournament since 1904. Fiji will also be competing for a medal in archery, javelin, 100m, judo, shooting, swimming, table tennis and weightlifting.
After Rio 2016 the soccer team’s target will be reaching World Cup 2018 whey they have the odds stacked firmly against them. In order to qualify they must first top their 3rd round group containing New Zealand and New Caledonia in order to proceed to the next Round.
There they will face the winner of Group B containing papa New Guinea, Tahiti and Solomon Islands in a two-legged affair. If they get through that unscathed they will play the fifth placed finisher in the South American qualification table in an inter-confederation two-legged play-off, the winner will appear at the World Cup.
Fiji will warm up for first ever Olympics soccer game with South Korea in Salvador with friendlies against Bolivia and Colombia. After meeting Mexico in Group C their final group game sees the islanders play Germany.