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Life After Sports: Former Midfielder Vuilabasa Reminisces Old Times

Former national and globetrotting German football coach the late Rudi Gutendorf, had labelled midfielder Meli Vuilabasa as the player with a high work rate.
31 Jul 2020 16:28
Life After Sports: Former Midfielder Vuilabasa Reminisces Old Times
From left: Meli Vuilabasa and George Koi in Nadi recently. Photo: Waisea Nasokia

Former national and globetrotting German football coach the late Rudi Gutendorf, had labelled midfielder Meli Vuilabasa as the player with a high work rate.

Gutendorf made his observation then when national rep Vuilabasa played a major role in Ba’s dominance in the local competition for 12 years.

Vuilabasa was always setting up play while combining with football greats like Vimlesh Singh, Josaia Tubuna, Romulu Delai, Semi Tabaiwalu, Inia Bola, Feroz Khan, Farouk Janeman and others.

From 1977, he was part of the Ba team that won the Interdistrict Championship (IDC) title for six years in a row.

The pinnacle of his national career was when he scored twice when they beat New Zealand 4-0 for the first time in 1980 during the Oceania Nations Cup in Noumea, New Caledonia.

He retired from football in 1989.

Connections

Through his football network, Vuilabasa earned money to support his family.

He started working at Vinod Patel in 1978 but was then laid off from work.

“The problem is when you are a player you are on top and people look at you as if you are up there,” Vuilabasa said.

“For working conditions you had to be there at 8am. I was there at 8.20am or 8.15 or 8.05 so the manager told me to go.”

He then joined Emperor Gold Mining (EGM) and also coached the Vatukoula football team which went up to the promotion/ relegation series.

“We lost and did not get our promotion,” Vuilabasa said.

“But there was one guy, Ganen Singh, who was working with BNZ (Bank of New Zealand). He invited me to visit him and asked me to return to Ba.

“I agreed and I returned to Ba and started playing with them.

“Then I got a job in the bank. All business houses in Ba including Vinod Patel gave me their support letter to work for BNZ.

“This was before it became Australia New Zealand Bank (ANZ).”

Vuilabasa started as a customer service officer and worked for 26 years with the bank.

“I went to become a bank teller and later got promoted as the Team Leader, the position I held for six years before taking the retirement package in 2013.”

Vuilabasa’s soccer skills were first spotted by Ba football officials while he was playing for Khalsa College during the Fiji Secondary Schools IDC.

“I was not told by my coaches that the Ba coach Sashi Mahendra Singh, (dubbed as the Father of Ba football), wanted me in the team. There was no turning back from there.”

He made his debut for the Ba senior team at the age of 18. Vuilabasa started as a striker before he took up the midfield position.

He played for Blackstone Club, Elevuka FC and then Flying Arrows in Ba.

“Your performance in a game depends on how well you prepare yourself.

“I was always a fit person. Even Rudi Gutendorf said I had the highest work rate. If I am fit I would be able to perform my duty well especially being in the midfield or centre link position.

“People loved it when they saw me running on the road. I did not want to boast but that was what I did to get to that level.”

Inspirations

Vuilabasa said he was inspired to play alongside the late Tubuna, Bale Raniga, Nakosia, Singh and the Sami brothers.

“I am proud to say that I was instrumental in the success of the Ba team when playing in the starting eleven with Osea Nacovu, Farouk Janeman, Josateki Kurivitu, Mitieli Turaganikeli and other greats. They inspired me.

“Football help shaped me as a person. I thought staying in Ba was life but when we went out, my horizon just expanded, that was one thing that helped me to be honest and be open minded in whatever I do and say.”

Lucky escape

In 1984, Vuilabasa was fortunate to have cheated death. He was in the accident that claimed the life of Tubuna.

Earlier in the day he was among the group that was drinking at the old Ba Hotel. From there they decided to go to Tavua, but he opted not to go with them.

“I did not travel with them since I had a small family then and I had to go to work the next day.

“It was hard to believe that Tubuna was killed in that accident. I walked out of my work (Vinod Patel) when I heard about it the next morning. I just cried and cried.”

Cherished moments

One of his sporting highlights was the 1980 OFC Nations Cup where Fiji beat New Zealand 4-0 for the first time.

Vuilabasa scored twice for Fiji while his striking partner Dewan Chand of Tailevu/Naitasiri also netted twice.

“I still remember the boots I wore. Fiji Football bought me new boots– KARZ. We were the Pacific kings. Surprisingly we were camping with New Zealand in the same hotel. We even had breakfast together.”

Fiji lost first to Tahiti 6–3, and in the third-place playoff 2-1 to New Caledonia.

His life

Vuilabasa was born January 31, 1960 at Natalecake Village in Ba which produced names well known in sports in the likes of Delai, Tevita Nadumu and Isimeli Nale.

He attended Bulu District School where he represented the school in rugby but for soccer he played for the Ba Primary School team.

He then attended Xavier College, but in 1977 he joined Khalsa College where his football boot began to do wonders.

The same year he was part of the Fiji Secondary Schools team that toured New Zealand. Other members of the team included Abdul Mannan, Tony Kabakoro, John Williams, and Mohamed Salim who later became legends of the game.

During the 1983 IDC he met his wife Lucy and got married the same year. They have five children, a boy and four girls. They now have 15 grandchildren.

Vuilabasa may have retired but his love for football remains fresh.

“We are the forgotten heroes. However, not completely forgotten as we meet many people today who know our names but we don’t know them,” he concluded.

Edited by Karalaini Waqanidrola

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