1990 World Cup Qualification
OFC – First round, first leg
Sat. 26 November 1988
Prince Charles Park, Nadi
Ref.: Gary Fleet (NZE)
The first of this two-legged affair would be played out in Fiji’s third biggest town Nadi. While the home side had big hopes for this particular fixture, the Australians were said to treat it as something of a ‘veni, vidi, vici’ do: Quickly in, get the job done, and then return back home as soon as they could.
Australia, on the back of a couple of impressive wins in a home tournament which had involved some big names, were massive favourites, at least across the two games, but they must have felt somewhat uneasy in regards to what was expecting them on the island in the South Pacific. The Fiji team themselves had had some really uplifting results recently, with triumphing in the inaugural Melanesian Cup, contested between several of the region’s island nations, and then winning two from three in a series of friendlies against New Zealand. They were ready for the Australians.
Fiji manager Billy Singh had gathered his squad and kept them together for a month leading up to this fixture. The Fijian squad was said to be the best ever in the country’s history of football, and there were hopes that they could go on and achieve the near impossible: To topple the mighty Australians. Perhaps better known for their rugby union prowess, where they had indeed progressed through to the World Cup the previous year, making it past the group stage and exiting to France in the quarter-final, this was still as big as it got for sports in Fiji: The region’s big powers had come to pay them a visit.
In preparing for the game, the Fiji team had had that long spell together; they wanted to be prepared the best they could. Results leading up to the World Cup qualification did indeed indicate that there could well be some truth to the saying that this was their strongest group of players ever. A win in the inaugural Melanesian Cup had happened a month earlier, and the three strong results in the friendly series against New Zealand had been impressive: Winning two and drawing the other.
Some Fijian players were also dabbling in rugby union. They were a physically very imposing team, and they were wanting to use this to their advantage. Tactics of intimidation was not beyond them when coming up against the big boys.
One set-back occured, though: Lautoka’s Henry Dyer had been picked, and not only for the starting eleven, but also to wear the captain’s armband. However, a bizarre story involving his inability to return a hire car in due time saw to that he was stripped of the captaincy and even ousted from the matchday squad altogether.
1988 was a big year in Australian football: The national team had first tackled Olympic qualification, where they had indeed progressed through to the tournament proper in Seoul, South Korea. Once there, they had given a tremendous account of themselves, with their most notable scalp being that of Yugoslavia in their opening group tie. Against a reasonably strong-looking Yugoslav team, they had won through a second half Frank Farina strike, and this had laid the foundation for their advance to the quarter-finals stage. An expected loss against Brazil and then another fine win, this time against Nigeria, had set them up for a cup game against the Soviet Union. Eventually bowing out by a 3-0 scoreline had perhaps been somewhat disappointing, but once the dust had settled, Frank Arok’s team must have considered themselves very pleased with how they had fared.
The most talked-about win for the Socceroos during 1988, though, was surely the 4-1 thrashing of reigning world champions Argentina. Perhaps had Carlos Bilardo taken a weakened squad to Australia, but losing by such a heavy margin had nevertheless not been in their plans. Central defender Oscar Ruggeri, Argentina’s goalscorer, had been their sole remnant from the 1986 World Cup final (goalkeeper Luis Islas and defender Oscar Garré had been unused substitutes then), but there were some up and coming players in that team, perhaps best noted through the presence of an 18 year old Diego Simeone.
Fiji across two legs was nothing short but a must-win tie to the Australians. They had reached the intercontinental play-off stage in the previous World Cup qualification, where they had lost on aggregate to Scotland. Fiji were just regarded as a mere obstacle on their path to the group stage in the second phase of the qualification.
Arok’s squad contained mostly players who had featured both in the Olympic Games tournament and during their own Bicentennial Gold Cup.
|x Nasoni Buli||Lautoka|
|x Abraham Watkins||Nadroga|
|x Pita Dau (c)||66′, sub 71′||Lautoka|
|x Dan Lutumailagi||Nadi|
|x Maretino Nemani||Suva|
|x Lote Delai||Ba|
|x Meli Vuilabasa||Ba|
|x Vimal Sami||Ba|
|x Ivor Evans||Vancouver 86ers|
|x Simon Peters||Labasa|
|x Jone Watisoni||sub h-t||Tavua|
|x Ravuama Madigi||on h-t||Ba|
|x Shafiq Ali||on 71′||Nasinu|
|x Ronald Chaudhary||Nasinu|
|x Tevita Lasaqa||Suva|
|Jeff Olver||27||Melbourne Croatia|
|Gary van Egmond||23||Footscray JUST|
|Charlie Yankos (c)||27||PAOK Saloniki|
|Gary McDowall||29||Brunswick Juventus|
|Graham Jennings||28||Sydney Croatia|
|Alan Davidson||28||Melbourne Croatia|
|Mike Petersen||sub 66′||23||Brunswick United|
|Oscar Crino||26||Footscray JUST|
|Warren Spink||sub 66′||22||Footscray JUST|
|Graham Arnold||25||Sydney Croatia|
|Scott Ollerenshaw||20||St George|
|Steve Maxwell||on 66′||23||Adelaide City|
|Joe Palatsides||on 66′||23||Brunswick United|
|Mike Gibson||25||St George|
|Alex Tobin||23||Adelaide City|
|Alex Bundalo||22||Wollongong City|
The following is borrowed from Lonely planet: “Most travellers go to Nadi twice, whether they like it or not: once on the way in and once on the way out. Its indecently warm air slaps you in the face when you first step from the plane and its airport is the last place to buy sunburn remedies before heading home. For some, two times is twice too often.”
(italia1990.com are not in possession of any footage from the game)
Perhaps does the following quote from Australia captain Charlie Yankos best describe their attitude towards this fixture: “We weren’t necessarily at the peak of our fitness because the expectation would have been we’re playing Fiji, the minnows… [so] it doesn’t really matter. Not disrespectfully, but we’d come back from the Olympics, you go abroad and you win. It didn’t work out that way.” (Guardian Australia).
Australia had not played a match for five weeks, with their latest efforts being the two-legged ‘Trans Tasman Cup’ victory over New Zealand.
In the Fijian side, Brisbane Olympic midfield man Kelemedi ‘Cheetah’ Vosuga had not been selected in the starting eleven (it remains unclear whether or not he was in the matchday squad), and the same went for New Zealand based Stan Morrell, a feature at Gisborne City. This probably left Ivor Evans as their most recognizeable name to Australian viewers: The winger had left a fine impression three years earlier when Fiji had come up against Australia in World Youth Championships qualification.
There was the added incentive of prize money for the home nation’s players were they to overcome the Australians: No less than 500 Fijian Dollars per player had been promised by the country’s FA. Manager Billy Singh had also shown a video of Socceroos defender Gary McDowall stepping on an opponent’s head during an Olympic Games qualifier earlier in the year, just to “show how ugly they could be” (quote: Singh). The manager had wanted to emphasize just how important it was that his players kept their cool: “Normally, if you hit one of our guys they hit back without even thinking. They don’t care about red cards or anything, they just keep punching and punching until the cops come and drag them off the ground. I don’t want them to do that, and I have told them they must be disciplined at all times.”
Apparently, the Australian team had arrived in Fiji three hours late, something which meant they had been unable to train on the day of arrival, and when they had their training session the next day, it happened on a bumpy pitch next to the Nadi airport, and in overwhelming heat and humidity, which had sapped their energy.
Australia winger Scott Ollerenshaw recollects the following from the match: “The first thing I can remember about that was there was at least 200 frogs on the pitch. That’s no exaggeration. There were frogs everywhere. You’d be running and you’d hear a squelch, and that would mean you’ve killed a frog. The second thing was that there were thousands of people there, but it wasn’t actually a stadium. There were hundreds of people in these trees, hanging off the trees. It was a very unusual setting with the frogs, and people hanging out of trees.” The 20 year old had been their main culprit in wasting opportunities.
As for the game, the visiting team still had large chunks of the possession, but they could not make their superiority tell. The plucky Fiji team had set up to frustrate, and according to Australia skipper Yankos, “the ball was very bouncy and hard to control; it was like one of those you buy in a petrol station. I felt sluggish, lacking in sharpness, and I think most of us felt like that.”
In regards to the hosts’ physical approach, it was perhaps best described through Ollerenshaw’s words: “I remember very early on in the game I went to make a forward run and this massive Fijian guy – he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Fiji Sevens, he was absolutely huge. He was the centre–back, and he elbowed me in the head. He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t run. Don’t run.’ So it was intimidating.”
The only goal of the game came halfway through the second half, after a combination down Fiji’s left hand side between left-back Lote Delai and midfielder Vimal Sami, who knew each other from club level with Ba, one of the country’s leading teams. Delai ultimately crossed for second half substitute Ravuama Madigi to strike home a left-footed volley which gave goalkeeper Jeff Olver no chance, and despite some hairy moments in the home defence towards the end, where their substitute, coming on for captain Pita Dau, Shafiq Ali saved one off the line, Fiji held out for their famous victory.
Some eight years after Australia had walloped Fiji 10-0 in qualification for the 1982 World Cup, they were now tasting bitter revenge from the home side, which revelled in their triumph. “It was the best moment in my life”, according to defender Abraham Watkins several years later.
1-0 to the Fijian minnows against the region’s super powers was a result which would reverberate around the footballing world, but still it was only half-time, with the second leg in Australia to come a week later. Surely, Fiji could not cling on to their lead in the outskirts of Newcastle?