For the first time in eight years a Fiji club will feature in the OFC Champions League final.
Not only is this Oceania’s premier international club competition, but, it’s also the last hurdle before a club from this region joins the best from across the globe at the FIFA Club World Cup.
Fiji national team coach Christophe Gamel has been following the progress of the Fiji representatives – both Lautoka and Ba – and believes the Blues have a chance, albeit a small one, to become the first non-New Zealand or Australian club since Hekari United in 2010 to take out the OFC Champions League title.
“It’s a small chance, to be totally honest,” the Frenchman said.
“We can’t underestimate what Wellington has done because for seven years Auckland City has won the final and gone on to the Club World Cup so it’s not a small thing that Wellington have done.”
Gamel has Lautoka with a 30 percent chance of winning the title, compared to 70 per cent for Wellington, but doesn’t necessarily see that as a disadvantage for the Fijians.
“We have to say that for us it will be very hard. But I am not saying we will lose, no, regarding the balance of the force they are above us.
“We are outsiders and they are favourites. But as usual the problem is two games. If it were one game I would say 50-50. But believe me, the 30 per cent we will optimise it, be sure of that.”
In terms of how the side has progressed through the competition, Gamel said the team improves with every performance.
“I think each time they have been able to life their level to compete more,” he explained.
“Mentally, it’s a team that sometimes has some troubles, but each time they try to come back in the game.
“The strength is that offensively, we create a lot of occasions, but unfortunately we don’t score enough in my opinion.
“Then when they want to defend well altogether, they can do it. But it’s all about consistency.”
As a national team coach, the opportunity to be involved with the teams taking part in the OFC Champions League has been an eye-opener.
“Of course it has been a good opportunity to work with the players I will consider for the national team,” he explained.
“I have seen my players directly. I can continue a process of growing with them and it maybe also helps me to understand how a district works, which is important because before I had no idea how things worked.
“Now I have a good point of view because if you see one district you see them all – they all work in a similar way.”
Gamel said the insights he has gained from working closely with Lautoka, and also watching Ba while they were in the Group Stage, has already helped him to give feedback to the Lautoka management in terms of where they can improve.
“Lautoka requested my assistance and that’s no problem I have been happy to help them not only with the trainings but with the way it works in the district,” he explained.
“What I have done is helped them to input some rules, even for the officials, because everyone is amateur and they are not used to these things.
“Plus the island way of life which is more relaxed.”
He said sometimes the lifestyle and circumstances associated with the amateur game have been a factor in success, or lack of, but as has been the case with how he has managed the national team, he said providing structure, regulations and consequences has had a positive effect.
“I now have an understanding of how it works inside the district, from A to Z. Now I have a good, and large, point-of-view of how to fix things, how to help them to reach another step in the future and how to organise themselves well.
“I think we have a big lack in organisation and some breakdowns of communication inside the districts so I think it’s important that we have already started thinking how to fix these problems and work towards lifting the level of football at the same time.”
Ultimately for Gamel, the participation of two Fiji sides in the OFC Champions League and the success of Lautoka in particular have provided him with confidence for the future of club and district football in Fiji, but also for the national team.
“I am really happy I’ve been able to follow the teams and the players,” he said.
“I’ve discovered some new players and also I can input in the districts the philosophy I have brought into the national team.”
He said the districts need to be on board with raising the quality of football in Fiji and he is certain that is the case now.
“We can build on the success of our clubs by inputting my philosophy of the game, which is based on possession, and clearly try to develop the game.
“We have reached the final so maybe it means it works. And if they see it works in the districts, which they have as I have already received requests from other districts for help, so they are demanding it.
“It means they want to lift up, they want to participate in this competition.”
Looking at where Lautoka is right now, and what can happen for them if they happen to win the OFC Champions League final, Gamel said the opportunities are not confined just to the club.
“The FIFA Club World Cup is a huge competition because you could play Liverpool or Real Madrid. This is the dream of any player in the world,” he stated.
“You see them on TV, and you can compete against them. This is the top competition and they can represent Fiji so it will be much more than Lautoka against Liverpool for example.
“It’s a star system against a no-star system. You have two worlds that have to meet and this is the beauty of football. You can’t find this in a lot of sports.”
Lautoka will play the first leg of the OFC Champions League final against Team Wellington at Dave Farrington Park on Sunday 13 May before the second leg is played a week later at Churchill Park.