DO you fancy getting $50 a week representing Fiji football at regional tournaments?
"That's what we got back then," former Fiji team skipper Tagi Vonolagi revealed yesterday.
He was talking about Fiji's historic first South Pacific Games football gold medal in Papua New Guinea in 1991.
"There were no extras, just $50 a week unless you won the tournament. With bonuses, we got $180 each for winning gold that year."
It wasn't about money back then, but the love of the game and country pride. There was a lot at stake. No country besides French territories Tahiti and New Caledonia had won SPG gold medals.
The draw wasn't on Fiji's side either. We were in the same pool with the two heavyweights and lowly Guam.
There was something special though about this Fiji team. They were oozing with confidence, buoyed by the influence of sevens rugby mentor, the late Ratu Kitione Vesikula.
The man from the chiefly family in Verata, Tailevu, was the face of Fiji. He had guided Fiji to back-to-back Hong Kong Sevens triumphs and later went on to make it a three-peat at So Kon Po.
Luckily for the Fiji Football Association, coach, the late Billy Singh and Ratu Kitione were best friends.
"That's what got us going," Vonolagi says. "Ratu was asked to help with our fitness training. There were even times when we'd be training together with the sevens rugby team."
I was anxious to know what training with Tu Kiti was like having heard of his strenuous exercises that made his ruggers world beaters? Vonolagi rolls his eyes and quips: "Oh boy, once he was done with us we were so fit that I am sure we could have beaten some top rugby teams in Fiji back then".
He'd make them do shuttle runs or beep tests in between palm trees. "And there were about 13 to 15 palm trees at Albert Park," Vonolagi reminds me, giving a hint of what they went through. "The good thing was we were really fit and that helped us in PNG."
They needed what they got from Tu Kiti. It prepared them for the physical and intense challenge.
It could not have got any worse than a player losing a couple of his teeth after getting his face smashed on the rugby uprights. Tu Kiti had put the team through relay races. The strikers were changing batons. The late Simon Peters handed over to now Seattle, Washington-based, Freddy Evans, who looked back, took the baton and shot off.
"That's when he ran straight onto the rugby post and lost some of his teeth," Vonolagi chuckles. Besides the lighter side of it, I could see how intense and serious these guys were about their mission under the guidance of Singh and Tu Kiti, two of the finest coaches Fiji has ever produced. May their souls rest in peace.
So was there anyone who got away from the rough and tough stuff dished out by Tu Kiti?
"(Ravuama) Madigi. He was the laziest trainer and would often make excuses of cramps or just limp away," Vonolagi laughs.
In PNG, we got off to a flyer after New Caledonia was shrugged aside 3-0 in the opening game. Guam was smashed 14-1 two days later, having earlier lost 1-15 to Tahiti.
Tahiti then surprisingly went down to New Caledonia 1-0. Things were going our way. The national team had never beaten Tahiti before, from the days of that famous Tahitian striker of the 70s, Erroll Bennett.
Finally, that happened on September 14, 1991. Tahiti was belted 3-0 and we topped our pool. Vanuatu was up next and they were put to bed easily in the semi-final, 3-1.
Solomons ousted New Caledonia 4-1 in the other semi-final to set up a mouth-watering prospect. Nailaga villager Taito Bula, Madigi, Suva's Maretino Nemani, Tui Namosi Ratu Suliano Matanitobua, 1988 Sportsman of the Year, Abraham Watkins, the lanky Jone Watisoni, Labasa's Taniela Tuilevuka, Rewa leftie Mohammed Yusuf, Tavua man Ronaldo Chaudhary, who later played for Rewa, veteran Kini Tubi, Labasa's Epeli Rokoqica, who joined Ba, Evans, Labasa's Jope Lomu and Peters, the in-form Radike Nawalu and Seventh-day Adventist Akuila Rova were some of the players representing us.
"We had a very good squad but were up against the crowd, the opposition and the referee's decisions," Vonolagi remembers.
Former Nadro ace Nawalu put us in front but Dudley Matai equalised and it ended 1-all at full-time and extra-time.
Two Fiji goals were disallowed. Bula and Nawalu's efforts late in the second spell of regulation time were ruled off-side.
Onto the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
They scored four and we scored four but not after a jittery start.
Watisoni took the first kick and blazed it over the bar. Luckily, he was given another shot at it as the Solomons goalkeeper had encroached in the lead-up to his attempt.
"That's probably the only decision that went our way and it turned out to be the turning point," Vonolagi reminisces.
Watisoni scored, so did Nawalu, Tubi and Labasa's Jope Lomu. Vonolagi and Watkins were Fiji's heroes as the former dived to stop Patrick Waku's spot-kick and the latter smashed home to give us our first ever SPG gold medal.
Three months of sweat, blood and tears in training paid off. Like the sayings goes, you win some, you lose some, some get rained out but you have to suit up for them all. These guys were truly up for it from the outset for it was not about the money - $50 a week, be it in Fiji or for tours overseas. How many of our reps would take that now?