Fiji has long enjoyed a connection with New Zealand football, and that link is set to be indelibly strengthened next month when the Melanesians make their historic bow at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Fiji’s appearance at New Zealand 2015 will mark the first time a side from the country has featured at a FIFA tournament.
While Tahiti have been stealing some of the region’s limelight in recent years, Fiji boast a lengthy and proud football tradition which, in FIFA World Cup™ terms, pre-dates all other Pacific islands nations. Indeed their 1981 debut was appropriately enough against New Zealand – an iconic All Whites’ side en route to creating their own slice of history by qualifying for Spain 1982.
Now in the modern era, Fiji’s football pin-up Roy Krishna has helped put his nation on the map with a goalscoring performance at the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup for Auckland City and, more recently, in the colours of Wellington Phoenix – New Zealand’s only professional club. In the space of a single season Krishna has gone from being a bit-player to an integral member of the Phoenix forward line with the club currently honing in on their best-ever A-League performance.
Few Pacific-born players have reached professional ranks, adding further credence to Krishna’s achievements. Only retired star Esala Masi, who won Australia’s former National Soccer League, stands out as an equal. And Krishna is hoping that his star-dust rubs off on his young compatriots when they take the field at New Zealand 2015 in a colourful group containing Germany, Honduras and Uzbekistan.
“It is a special moment for not only Fiji, but also for Oceania,” Krishna told FIFA.com about New Zealand 2015. “I hope the team do well and make Fiji and Oceania proud. Hopefully fans come out and support the team, and the young players show their ability. We have some good young up-and-coming players and, if they do well, hopefully it can open the door for more players to get a professional contract. I think there is big potential for players across Oceania, and I hope more can play in the A-League.”
Fiji are undertaking significant preparation for New Zealand 2015. They have spent the past few months in Suva at the national training centre, and will soon head to Sydney for several international matches, before arriving early in Christchurch ahead of their opener against Germany.
The fact they have qualified for a FIFA tournament on their own doorstep adds yet another layer of excitement. Unusually for an Oceania team, the travel is minimal, there will be no time difference, and Fiji can also expect to earn support from the New Zealand-based Fijian community which is said to number around 60,000. Adding to that support will be New Zealand-Fiji Football, a body established to promote and encourage football within New Zealand’s Fijian community.
One such local Fijian is Mohammed Khan, who is set to feature at the heart of the Melanesian side’s backline when they take to the field in Christchurch. Originally from Suva, Khan, whose family boasts strong footballing pedigree, has spent the past few years plying his trade for Auckland powerhouse Waitakere United.
Indeed Khan’s arrival at the west Aucklanders briefly overlapped with that of Krishna’s just prior to the latter’s departure to Auckland City and a prominent role at the Club World Cup. The Wellington Phoenix star is certainly an inspiration to many of his younger countrymen.
“I have talked to some of my friends who say they want to be like him, and also play at the top level,” Kahn told FIFA.com. “He is definitely a role model. I look up to him and he is one of my Fijian idols. But he is actually someone that every Indian-Fijian looks up to. That’s down to his playing level, his skill and also the fact he is such a nice guy off the field, always willing to offer advice.”
A cultured ball-playing central defender, who studies mechanical engineering in Auckland, Kahn says New Zealand 2015 will be unique in many ways. “It will be a special atmosphere,” he said. “I will have a lot of my family coming from overseas just to watch me play, and make them proud. My dad, my uncle, my dad’s dad all played at the top level in New Zealand and overseas, so I’m very excited. It will be nerve-wracking, but good.”