Football | SPORTS

The Forgotten Story Of …The Socceroos’ Loss To Fiji

It’s been almost nine years since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation, but history will record now as the most pivotal period in our transition. Half of Sydney is still
12 Nov 2014 09:58
The Forgotten Story Of …The Socceroos’ Loss To Fiji

It’s been almost nine years since Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation, but history will record now as the most pivotal period in our transition. Half of Sydney is still partying on the inside after Western Sydney Wanderers’ great escape from Riyadh with the AFC Champions League trophy. Shortly after the New Year, the party will resume in public with the start of the 2015 Asian Cup, the biggest football tournament to ever hit these shores. While most fans might not yet be able to tell their J-League from their K-League Classic, the local game is becoming wise to the idiosyncrasies and opportunities of Asia. It’s starting to feel right.

In the meantime, spare a thought for Oceania. Here we are, all getting ready for the eyes of the world to turn our way at our big coming-of-age bash, while poor little Oceania, our old flame, didn’t even get an invite. Life in the world’s smallest and least relevant confederation isn’t quite the same with New Zealand as the only big fish in the small pond. As we become an integral part of Asian football, it’s worth remembering just how far back our ties run with the islands off our shore. And in the wake of the Socceroos’ embarrassing 1-0 loss to Qatar last month – which sent Ange Postecoglou’s team tumbling down to an all-time low of 94th in the Fifa rankings – there’s no better place to start than Nadi.

The Socceroos were on fire in 1988. Frank Arok had just steered Australia to two of their most famous victories – first, the 4-1 win against world champions Argentina in the Bicentennial Gold Cup, then a 1-0 triumph over the might of Yugoslavia at the Seoul Olympics. With the likes of skipper Charlie Yankos, Graham Arnold, Frank Farina and Oscar Crino all at or nearing their prime, this was a side with the 1990 World Cup firmly in their sights. The qualification path began in late November with a seemingly innocuous two-legged tie against Fiji.

The first leg was in Nadi, Fiji’s third-largest town, one that isn’t quite sure whether it is a tourist destination, a cultural and religious hub, or a farming town. According to 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.”

That was the plan for the Socceroos. Get in, win, and get out. Despite having not played for five weeks leading up to the match, Arok’s men were full of confidence. “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,” Yankos told Guardian Australia. “Not disrespectfully, but we’d come back from the Olympics, you go abroad and you win. It didn’t work out that way.”

For Fiji, this game was everything. The collection of players at coach Billy Singh’s disposal is still considered the best the island nation has ever produced. Singh had his men in camp training full-time for an entire month, winning the Melanesian Cup in the Solomon Islands and surprisingly beating New Zealand in a three–match series during that time. Fiji is better known as a rugby nation, and even though many of their footballers also dabbled in the 15–man code, they were certainly no mugs with the round ball. Three years prior, winger Ivor Evans had wowed crowds in Sydney for the World Youth Championships qualifiers, while midfielder ‘Cheetah’ Vosuga was a star for Brisbane Olympic and Stan Morrell was playing for New Zealand side Gisbourne City.

“Our preparation has been the best it has ever been and the players are believing in themselves,” Singh told the Sydney Morning Herald before the match. “Normally they play for fun, but this time it is serious. They have tasted the glory of winning and they like it.”

Fijian players had the added incentive of a $500 bonus per player if they were able to beat Australia. For a cash-strapped association to offer such a prize to a group that was mostly unemployed illustrates how much this match meant. If they needed any further motivation, Singh showed the team footage of an ugly incident involving Socceroos player Garry McDowall, who had stamped on the head of an Israeli opponent in an Olympic qualifier earlier that year. “I have told them this is how dirty they can be, but I have emphasised they must keep their cool,” he said. “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.”

The Socceroos were walking into an ambush. The early signs were there – their departure from Sydney was delayed and they arrived in Fiji almost three hours late, which meant they weren’t able to train that day as intended. When they eventually did, it was on a bumpy pitch next to the airport in Nadi, the humidity sapping their energy. At one point when the team drove past the Fiji team hotel, one of their opponents gave a black power salute. There was a feeling of impending doom that accompanied the visitors at every turn, and that uneasiness went up a few notches when they arrived at Prince Charles Park on match day.

“The first thing I can remember about that was there was at least 200 frogs on the pitch,” Socceroos winger Scott Ollerenshaw told Guardian Australia. “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.”

As expected, the Australians had the better of the game. But turning that dominance into a lead was another matter, particularly against a Fiji side that had set up purely to frustrate. Despite chance after chance and overwhelming possession, the ball simply wasn’t going in, no matter what. “It was bouncing off [the posts], hitting people in the leg and going out,” Yankos said. “I remember we played with a ball that was very bouncy, very hard to control. I always likened it to one of those balls you buy at the petrol station. It was very muggy, I felt very sluggish. I just didn’t have that sharpness in that particular game. I think it might have been the same for most of us. By the time we hit our straps and realised we were in for a pretty tough afternoon, it was too late to do something about it.”

That the Socceroos were in for a pretty tough afternoon was made clear in the opening minutes to Ollerenshaw, who was 20 years old at the time and had only recently broken into the national team. “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 said. “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.”

Arok preached a message of calm at the interval, with scores still locked at 0-0, but disaster struck midway through the second half. The Fiji left-back, Lote Delai, surged down the left in the 67th minute, sending in a knee-high cross. His team-mates from the Ba province, Vimal Sami and substitute Ravuama Madigi were waiting. Sami dummied to make room for Madigi, who unleashed a left-foot volley that gave the Socceroos goalkeeper Jeff Olver no chance. Fiji were in front. Nobody could quite believe it.

Try as they might, the Socceroos couldn’t equalise, with a late chance cleared off the line by Shafique Ali. Cue bedlam. Singh was chaired off the field, declaring in jubilation: “The Australians came here too sure of themselves. They thought we were stupid, unprofessional.”

“It was the best moment of my life,” said Abraham Watkins, who was part of a five-man Fijian defence that day. Watkins was later named the Fijian Sportsman of the Year for his role in the victory, the first and only footballer to win the award. He now lives in Griffith, NSW with his two sons, Archie and Sitiveni, who are both Fijian age internationals. “We played with our heart. They knew that we were going to beat them so they couldn’t play good soccer. They just kicked and chased in the second half. It was a big achievement for us, and the country. The whole country was celebrating. The party was big. The government nearly gave us a one-week holiday., but they didn’t.”

“At the end of the day, if you don’t score, there’s no excuses,” said Ollerenshaw, who probably wasted the most chances for Australia. “Fiji played well that day – probably as good as they could, and we probably played as bad as we could. It’s not a nice feeling to be associated with one of the most embarrassing losses the Socceroos have ever had. We wanted to escape as soon as possible. I just remember it was like a morgue to us. There was a massive post-mortem. Massive. [Arok said] in layman’s terms, ‘what the fuck is going on? How could we lose against so-called minnows?’”

The Socceroos couldn’t wallow in their own misery though. With the return leg a week later at Macquarie Field in Newcastle, they had to dust themselves off and go again. “One of the best things about Frank was that he was great in adversity,” Ollerenshaw said. “If you had a bad loss, or if the team played badly or the individual played badly, Frank always believed that the first training session after a loss was the most important one. Our next training session was very positive and vibrant and it got everyone back up again.”

Arok resisted the temptation to tinker with his side, beyond swapping Mike Petersen for Jason Polak. “There was this anxiousness about us,” Yankos said. “I remember when we played in Newcastle, the first 15 to 20 minutes, we were under a fair amount of our own pressure. We knew we had to score early, otherwise if it was still 0-0 at half-time, if someone got sent off or if they scored an early goal, it would have made it a lot harder.” Fortunately, that never happened, despite Fiji bringing the very same physical approach. Australia were switched on from the start, desperate to avoid repeat embarrassment. Yankos scored after just nine minutes, Warren Spink soon added the second, and then deep into the second half, Yankos converted from the penalty spot to make it 3-0.

After another two goals in three minutes from Arnold and Paul Trimboli, it became a 5-0 blowout. But Fiji weren’t going down without a fight –literally. Annoyed that their hopes of progress were destroyed so comprehensively, the Fijians started throwing wild punches. Oscar Crino and Alan Davidson both copped one, but the biggest hit was reserved for Yankos, who had his nose broken by substitute Jone Watsioni. “They weren’t there to play football against us,” Yankos said. “Alan Davidson was in a scuffle with some of the players and I was just being the typical, nice captain, going in to break it all up. I can’t remember how much longer here was to go – only a couple of minutes – but one of the players just came up and hit me from behind, a round-arm. He smashed me – a king hit, from behind, wrapped around the back of my head.” Ollerenshaw was benched by this stage, and was watching the carnage unfold from the sidelines. “It was a bit like a State of Origin game,” he said. “From memory, George Haniotis was outstanding in the brawl. That was one of George’s few appearances for the Socceroos and I remember he was involved. As I was watching it, I really wasn’t that upset about being on the bench.”

Watkins laughs when he retells the story, remembering that Watsioni unleashed on Yankos out of pure frustration. “He thought it was a boxing ring,” he said. “We weren’t mentally prepared. When they play dirty, they spit on you in the tunnel and talk like that and everything… we can’t take it. They make us angry. Fiji players, we have short tempers. We used to be big, tall guys. So he just gave him a good shot, and he was down and got a red card.” Yankos somehow played on but was taken to hospital straight after the match. Watsioni saluted the crowd like a champion heavyweight when he was given his marching orders. The Fijians scored a consolation goal with a minute of regulation time remaining, and then went out with the Socceroos for post-game drinks. “It comes back to the chance they had, all that hope, it was lost,” Yankos said. “They got agitated. How many opportunities do you really get to beat someone – you beat them at home, and then all of a sudden it crumbles at the other end? It was a bit of a shame that it ended up that way because they did quite well in the first game. They didn’t do it with dignity at the end, just pure fighting.”

The two sides have met four times since then, with the Socceroos taking the win on each occasion. The last was in 2004, and the next – with Australia now in Asia, who knows when the next will be? Watkins thinks it’s a shame. “When we play overseas teams it’s a big achievement for us – especially the Socceroos,” he Watkins said. “They were in their primetime at that time. Beating the Socceroos was a big achievement for Fiji soccer. It would be good to play them again, we always enjoy it. The whole country does.”

While Australia is now estranged from Oceania, there are still a handful of remaining links. One is the Wellington Phoenix, the manifestation of the agreement FFA made with Fifa to continue to assist Australia’s neighbours in Oceania as a trade-off for smooth passage into Asia. Incidentally, the Phoenix have the only Fijian player in A-League history on their books, Roy Krishna. Another link is Farina, who is now the technical director of Fiji’s under-20s side – they are preparing for next year’s Fifa Under-20s World Cup, the first time a Fijian side will appear in a global tournament at any level. Papua New Guinea-rasied Farina missed the 1988 ties – he was unavailable after signing for Club Brugge – but coached the national team against Fiji and knows the ins and out of Oceania better than most. “I just came back from Fiji, and one of the media guys in Fiji Football asked me, ‘Frank, can you organise for all the games to be videoed?’” he told Guardian Australia. “I said, ‘Yeah, of course. But why’s that?’ He said, ‘Fiji Football don’t have any history of Fiji teams playing. Our greatest moment was when Fiji beat the Socceroos but we don’t have any actual footage of that. I just want to get an archive going.’”

Farina was only too willing to help, but believes there are other ways Australia can – and should – give back to the region. Six years ago, in the thick of the wheeling and dealing of Australia’s ill-fated bid to host the World Cup, Frank Lowy suggested a combined Pacific Islands team would be welcome to enter the A-League. “There are 11 million people in Oceania and if we can attract a team from the islands to play in the A-League we can attract another 10 or 11 million viewers,” he said. “I [have] invited the Oceania Confederation to create a team of all the islands and if they do that, we will be able to accommodate them in the A-League and they certainly seemed very interested in that.” Nothing came of those plans.

Farina doubts a Pacific Islands team will ever happen, but he is an advocate for more Pacific Islands representation in the A-League. “I genuinely believe that we owe something to try and assist and help in whatever way possible,” he said. “You see these players and they’re so talented, but they probably lack the professionalism in the set-up. But I tell you what – give these boys a professional set-up and they can do something. It may be a ridiculous concept but don’t regard them as visa players. Any Oceania player that an A-League club would like to sign because they see potential, why not relax the rules? If you did that – as was the case in the old national league – you look at the striker who played for Wollongong Wolves, Esala Masi, who won two championships. If I was an A-League coach – and I was last year – there may be players I would sign on youth league deals or whatever. I still believe there are grounds we can look at and work out and assist. They’re our neighbours, and we were there for so long.”

Like everyone else, Yankos is looking forward to the AFC Asian Cup with excitement, but like Farina, he’s also looking back at the Oceania years with fondness. “There were a lot of things we did in Oceania that are lost now,” Yankos said. “I go back to the Trans-Tasman Cup between us and New Zealand – there used to be a fair amount of rivalry, we’d play that regularly and it was good, a bit like the Bledisloe Cup. Now we’re in Asia that’s not happening anymore, which is disappointing. It’s just one of those circumstances about progress in football. That’s part of our history.”



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