(Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek)

Angeline Rekha’s journey in football is a remarkable one. The 18-year-old centre back turned heads with a commanding performance at the heart of Fiji’s defence in her side’s 3-0 defeat by New Zealand at the OFC U-19 Championships in Suva last week.

Perhaps her display in which she earned the player of the match award despite struggling with a leg injury for the entire match, should not have come as a surprise. She first represented Fiji at senior level last year playing three games at the Four Nations tournament in Australia, having debuted for the ‘Young Kulas’ the previous year.

Rekha followed in the footsteps of her older sister Harriet (20) who has recently retired and has now started a family.

Angeline Rekha’s story is one of courage, determination, and self-belief to overcome numerous challenges to get where she is today.

Fiji’s Angeline Rekha rising high to contest the ball. OFC U-19 Women’s Championship 2023, New Zealand v Fiji, HFC Bank Stadium, Suva, Fiji, Thursday 22nd June 2023. Photo: Kirk Corrie / www.phototek.nz

Rekha only started playing competitive football five years ago in her hometown of Ba. Before that she used to go to a local park after primary school with her friends, mainly boys, who would play football.

Angeline recalls joining them for kick arounds. “I stayed in goal; the boys didn’t trust me to play in front and I was the only girl, and the boys didn’t really want me there.” Rekha explained.

“I always wanted to play but the environment didn’t really allow it.” She added.

It wasn’t until 2018 that Rekha got her break. She followed her sister to Ba FC team training and first met the coach she attributes to her rapid rise, Charlene Lockington.

“Because I had played in goal with my friends, I wanted to play goalkeeper but once Charlene saw me sprinting, she moved me onto the wing.” Rekha said.

The then 13-year-old was quickly selected to play for Fiji at the OFC U-16 Women’s Championships in Tahiti in November 2019. But the tournament was unfortunately cancelled due to a Measles outbreak.

Player of the Match Fiji’s Angeline Rekha. OFC U-19 Women’s Championship 2023, New Zealand v Fiji, HFC Bank Stadium, Suva, Fiji, Thursday 22nd June 2023. Photo: Kirk Corrie / www.phototek.nz

Changes on her home front forced Angeline to curtail her football ambitions. She quit the game in late 2019 to take care of her younger siblings. Her dad, a mechanic had to travel a lot for work and Angeline was tasked with looking after Jitendra who was 12 at the time, 10 year old Annalisa,and Faith who was just five.

“I was so busy with the kids, I had to cook, get them ready for school, teach my youngest sister in pre-school how to ring the bell when she reached home. I was in secondary school and got home after her.” There was simply no time for her passion and she didn’t play football for more than six months as the Covid pandemic also hit. It wasn’t until the middle of the 2020 season that she returned to the sport.

Rekha represented Fiji at the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in Fiji last year and is proud of the fact she was the “youngest and tallest player in the team.” Having helped the ‘Kulas’ make the final, she would love to go all the way with her young teammates in this tournament. She describes losing the final to Papua New Guinea as her worst moment in football.

She moved away from home in Ba last year to Lautoka where she is living with a group of high school friends. The two towns are located more than an hour’s drive away. While she travels back to Ba for games on the weekend, she trains with a men’s team in Lautoka during the week.

And do they pass her the ball?

“Yesss (she smiles) the boys pass to me, and they are more experienced, they are fast with their touches. It’s a club men’s team, they treat me as equal. I am fast and can match their speed, combinations. At first, I was lost but I got used to the pace of the game, so when I go to Ba for the girls’ game, it’s slower.”

Despite not living with her siblings now she enjoys a close relationship with them. Her brother is playing football at secondary school and “he’s always challenging me, saying he can be better.”

Sisters Annalisa and Faith have enjoyed plenty of encouragement and coaching from Angeline who would regularly take them to the park after school when she was younger. Her sisters came to the game against New Zealand game last Thursday.

“I was shocked, and I went up there (In the stands) to meet them… I was so happy to see them come to support me.”

Angeline thinks back to the early days when her friends made her play in goal and wouldn’t pass her the ball.

“I bump into those guys now and again and they can’t believe what I have achieved… they are proud.” She said.

Speed is one of Rekha’s assets, she was a star long jumper at secondary school and won gold and silver medals representing Xavier College at the Coca Cola Games, the National School’s Championships.

But the teenager was never destined for an athletics career, football is where her heart is.

“I am in love with football. I would love to apply for overseas clubs to play and experience more.”

But Rekha has not let one player of the match performance get to her however and she knows she still has a lot to learn.

“I should get better reading the game. When I am at the back I have so much pressure on me because I am the last line and must be talking and reading the game more. I need to improve my timing on the ball and my communications.”

Her best friend in the team is reserve goalkeeper Auhtum Underwood, the pair have an innate understanding. “I am so close to her.”

And she would love another crack at New Zealand next week.

“We took a while to settle in the first game in defence and in midfield. But we gave them a hard time and will be better next time.”

The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is fast approaching in New Zealand and Australia in July and August and Rekha is looking forward to watching the tournament in the same time zone.

“It will be exciting to watch a high-level tournament because I can learn so much from it.”

And she hopes one day to represent her country on football’s biggest stage.