FIJI Football Association honoured the legends of 1988 that defeated Australia 1-0 at Prince Charles Park in Nadi.
During that year 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 at Prince Charles Park in Nadi.
That was the plan for the Socceroos. Get in, win, and get out.
For Fiji, this game was everything. The collection of players at coach Late Billy Singh’s disposal is still considered the best Fiji has ever produced. Singh had his men were 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Singh was chaired off the field, declaring in jubilation.
“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 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.
Watkins laughs when he retells the story, remembering that Watsioni unleashed a Socceroo’s player 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.” That players 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 Fijian went down fighting 5-1 in the second leg with 10-men in Australia.