An achievement of the biggest scale: Fiji's football team to participate at their first ever Olympic Games
At the Rio Olympics, it will be a maiden Men’s Olympic Football appearance for Fiji’s football team. The tiny nation made it to the Olympics after beating Vanuatu 4-3 in the penalty shoot-out after a gripping and nerve-wrecking final in Papua New Guinea. The finale was played under floodlights and after a goalless 120 minutes, it went to penalties where Jale Dreloa, captain of Fiji's recent FIFA U-20 World Cup campaign, stepped up to convert the crucial spot kick.
The tournament was originally played as part of the 2015 Pacific Games but it was later changed to make it the 7th edition of the OFC Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the quadrennial international tournament that is organised every four years by the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). It is played to determine as to which men's under-23 national teams from Oceania will be participating at the Olympic Games.
It had been previously decided that a separate qualifying tournament would take place at Tonga but it was later absorbed into the Pacific Games. The combined tournament also meant that New Zealand’s football team was participating in the event for the first time. However, as some of the teams who were participating at the event were not members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it was decided that two separate knockout stages will be conducted.
It meant that one winner would be qualifying for the Rio Olympics whereas the other would be crowned the Pacific Games champion. It was Fiji who came out on top in the OFC Olympic qualifying tournament while New Caledonia won the Pacific Games gold medal by defeating Tahiti 2-0 in the final match.
Whilst New Zealand were considered as the favorites to win the competition, controversy erupted when on the day of the final it emerged that the Kiwis had fielded an ineligible player, Deklan Wynne, in the 2-0 semi-final victory over Vanuatu. Hence, the latter were awarded a 3-0 victory, thereby advancing to the final match where they subsequently lost to the Fijians.
In the semi-final game, Fiji were considered as the underdogs but Napolioni Qasevakatini’s hat-trick took them through to the final where they created history. This was a historic moment for all the Fijians. A country with a population of just over 800,000 had been able to do something none of the remaining unqualified countries have been able to do. It is a great achievement also because the country does not boast of star players and a strong domestic league.
Qualifying for the Olympic Games is a dream come true for the 187th ranked team in the world, who will be up against 15 other major nations of the world. The island nation has been placed in Group C alongside giants of world football in South Korea, Mexico and Germany. At the Games, however, the tiny nation will be facing tough fixtures when they face the three other teams in the group.
The backbone of the Fiji squad has been based on Indian origin players such as Roy Krishna and Alvin Singh. The former is the captain of his national side and plays for the Wellinton Phoenix side in the A-League. Half of the country’s squad that will feature at the Rio Olympics had also featured in Fiji's historic journey to New Zealand for the U-20 World Cup this year.
The victory in the qualifying competition marked a remarkable few months for Fijian football and a fairytale that only the beautiful game can produce!
Here is the whole squad that will be competing for Fiji at the Games:
Shaneel Naidu, Praneel Naidu, Samuela Nabenia, Jale Dreloa, Anish Kumar Khem, Roy Krishna, Atonio Tuivuna, Sakaraia Naisua, Nickel Nishal Chand, Filipe Baravilala, Setareki Hughes, Ratu Tevita Waranivalu, Ratu Savenaca, Iosefo Verevou, Kolinio Sivoki, Simione Tamanisau, Saula Waqa and Alvin Singh.