Following Fiji FA’s major overhaul of futsal in 2018, the popular small-sided game has gone from strength to strength in the Pacific nation.
Despite the game’s growing popularity in Fiji since the mid-1990s, combined with a healthy participation rate and three runners-up finishes at Oceania level between 2000 and 2010, the country’s national team and the game in general had experienced a steady decline in the past decade.
In 2011, Fiji managed to only finish fifth at the region’s top futsal competition on home soil and didn’t even enter the next two continental tournaments in 2013 and 2014.
As hosts of the 2016 OFC Futsal Nations Cup the Bula Boys finished sixth to end another disappointing campaign before improving one spot at the 2019 edition of the tournament in New Caledonia.
Fiji’s Inter-District Futsal Championship was also suspended in 2006 only to resume in 2018 as part of Fiji FA’s futsal reform agenda.
Since then, however, there is renewed optimism about the future of futsal with an emphasis on structural changes, coach education, player development, talent identification and the creation of new meaningful competitions to grow participation numbers and provide pathways from grassroots to the elite level.
Drawing on support and assistance from the Oceania Football Confederation futsal development programme, Fiji FA Futsal Development Officer Mira Sahib and his team have embarked on a nationwide programme to establish local league competitions covering every district of the country.
Thanks to their efforts a major milestone was reached this month with the launch of four brand new local leagues in Suva, Lami, Nasinu and in Ba, while the work is well underway to introduce similar regional competitions in Labasa, Rewa, Nadroga, Nadi and Rakiraki in the near future.
In addition, there are plans to set up a number of local women’s leagues with Fiji FA already in talks with Suva, Ba, Lami and Nasinu.
Sahib said youth development was also a key element of Fiji FA’s new futsal strategy.
“I’m encouraging the districts to have U-17 youth teams in their competitions, as it is not only about the senior teams. We want to run simultaneous youth matches during both men’s and women’s futsal tournaments,” he said.
“The goal is to increase the number of futsal players in Fiji. Our vision is a pyramid structure with a solid participation rate at the base to provide a stable foundation and support for high performance and elite players on the top.”
The Fijian approach to build from the ground up received the full backing of OFC.
“It’s great to see the way Mira and Fiji FA are working because what they are focusing on is a long-term strategy,” said OFC Head of Football Development Paul Toohey.
“Mira and his team’s mission to take futsal to the people and regions and set up competitions despite the lack of traditional courts and facilities will go a long way to ignite interest and a love of the game.
“By focusing on increasing the participation of young players, they will create a future demand for more futsal competitions at regional, national and international level.
“What is also encouraging is Fiji FA want to organise big events, like the recent Inter-District Championship tournament in the refurbished FMF stadium. The tournament was another milestone in the sense that it brought futsal back inside an indoor venue. This kind of tournament is great for the players, coaches, referees, administrators, sponsors and of course the fans, as they get to experience the true atmosphere of futsal.”
Sahib was confident the growing number of new local leagues would also help to improve the standard of play at the top level.
“From the local league competitions we will be able to pick the best player to represent their districts and from there we can pick the best players to represent our country,” he said.
“Our ultimate goal is to have specialist futsal players within the next five years to increase the professionalism and standards of our national team at OFC tournaments.
“In 2018 our target was to participate at the OFC Futsal Nations Cup and that’s what we did last year in New Caledonia. At the next tournament in 2023 we want to qualify for the semis, and four years later we want to be in the final.
“The next goal after that is to win the OFC Futsal Nations Cup and qualify for the FIFA Futsal World Cup and not just be making up the numbers, but be competitive on the global stage.”
Toohey said Fiji was on the right track to challenge our region’s more traditional futsal powers in the coming years and their strategic approach could provide a blueprint for OFC’s other Member Associations.
“Fiji’s long-term vision and planning is very encouraging. It is fair to say that in the past some Member Associations limited themselves with short-term goals, for example by preparing teams for OFC competitions just before the start of the tournaments themselves.”
Futsal coach development is another key element of both OFC and Fiji FA’s strategy.
Coaches in Fiji are in the process of completing their OFC Futsal C Licence and OFC is working closely with the Fiji FA to provide introductory certificate courses at both senior and junior level.
Toohey was buoyed by the increased focus on futsal coaching, which goes hand in hand with the new competitions setup by Fiji FA.
“With increased futsal activities comes a growing demand from new coaches for specific futsal knowledge. Our challenge is to meet that demand through courses and mentoring and to also provide, as often as possible, a level of competition that will enable the coaches to put their newly acquired skills and knowledge into practice,” he explained.