When Luisa Tamanitoakula arrived in New Zealand two weeks ago she had little idea that the OFC U-19 Women’s Championship would have such an impact on her and her teammates.
Dealing with the bitterly cold and wet conditions was one things, but the 18-year-old Golden Ball winner said it was in fact the heavy 9-1 loss to New Zealand was a decisive moment for the side.
“In the beginning it was kind of challenging, and when we lost to New Zealand that was kind of a turning point for us.
“That’s when I said, ‘I bet we are the best in Oceania apart from New Zealand’.”
And she wanted to prove it.
But then the side suffered a huge blow, learning of the passing of goalkeeper Francine Lockington on 12 July back in Fiji.
As well as being a teammate and friend, Lockington was family, with cousin Cecilia Nainima a crucial member of the backline.
Lending support to her, while also dealing with her own grief, was important for Tamanioakula and something she managed with great maturity.
A challenge which coach Saroj Kumar said Tamanitoakula proved she was up to.
“She did a marvellous job of keeping the team together during such a difficult time for all of us,” he said.
For Tamanitoakula giving the team something to work for was part of helping them cope.
“I kept telling the girls every day that going home with a medal for her, would be the most important thing.
“And knowing that we lost our best goalkeeper we are thankful that the girls didn’t lose focus,” Tamanitoakula said.
“She is very well missed by everyone and they’re waiting for us to get home to conduct the funeral.”
Putting aside the loss when they stepped on the field for their remaining three matches, Fiji gave their all with Tamanitoakula leading by example.
A powerful striker with a tidy first touch, she put herself in the running for the Golden Boot with her seven goals in five games.
Despite missing out on that accolade to the prolific New Zealand strike force, Tamanitoakula is more than happy with the awards she and her teammates are taking home.
“The most exciting thing is to win silver – this is a huge achievement for Fiji football to be taking home the silver medal as well as two trophies,” she said.
“We’ve created so much history in this tournament and I guess this is how we’re making Fiji football proud.
“For me personally, it’s a massive achievement of course. Back at home I’ve been winning so much, but to win this in Oceania which includes New Zealand, it’s a great honour.”
Tamanitoakula first kicked a ball as an eight-year-old and said it is interesting how things have turned out.
“I was introduced to football by Francine’s aunty actually – Cecilia’s mother Charlene Lockington,” she said.
“She introduced everyone to football and I guess I am also winning this award for her, for getting me involved and igniting my passion for the game.”