A STAUNCH Blues fan once told me that while other teams were often wary of the opposition, Lautoka football was its own enemy.
He quipped something like: "Bahut kachkach, raat din wohi baat. Bahut din seh haam dekhte aya hein aur kuch badla nahin (there is too much infighting, day and night. It has been happening for long and nothing changes)". That was way back in the late 90s.
I am talking about a good friend who passed away some years ago, Liaquat Samut Ali, who also served the Lautoka Football Association as an administrator for many years.
A man of few words, he had a stall in the market. If you wanted soccer news, that was the place to be. Lautoka reps, the likes of Ramendra Dutt, Navin Kumar (both now based in New Zealand), Anirudh Singh, Watisoni Voli and others, would often drop by for a bowl of kava. That's where I met former Lautoka coach Anil Nair, a dentist who also died some years ago, and former Fiji goalkeeper and fellow Blues coach, the late Nicholas Rounds. Ali and Rounds were inseparable, the best of friends.
Ali was so true, he may be gone but his words not forgotten. He also revealed something else to me, that I will come to later in this piece. Although the Blues often turn on the style and triumph, as they did at the 2005 and the 2008 IDC, things have more than often fallen apart.
Tournament after tournament we have seen officials come up with revelations that certain players had breached camp rules and regulations. Time and again we have seen players facing the disciplinary committee. It has become a norm that someone (player or players) has to face the music for the team's failure in tournaments.
Players are disciplined then brought back when they apologise. It's a cycle that carries on. I am not saying that Lautoka players are saints but my point is that if you keep disciplining and then within days pardoning them, then what else do you expect? They keep at it because they know that eventually they will have their way around the officials.
Most of the time, senior players are the ones pulling the strings and how many times have we seen them get away with it. Then again, there are two sides to a coin. Why do most Blues players do what they do? There can be many reasons. They may not be happy with the officials, or the coaching staff or with what's on offer as incentive. Or are they simply irresponsible athletes? Because if they are simply bad, or if it's all their fault, then surely they should be handed serious bans and never ever be allowed to wear that Blue jumper again, but that does not happen. So what is the problem?
Then my mind flashes back to what Ali told me over a kava session in 1997 when the Lautoka team was performing badly. "The worst thing is outside influence," he had said in Hindi.
Most of the time these 'outside influence', he said, were Lautoka's very own. Remember what Ali had said earlier, 'the enemy within'.
"Very few people in Lautoka are all for the district," Ali had said. "It's like 'if I am not in there (as an official) then the team should not win'." Ali was different. He was always for Lautoka. He'd leave his business to travel and watch games as far as Nausori. Many times I saw him help players and their families with shopping from his stall and even cash. May Allah rest his soul in eternal peace. Moving on, I see that Alvin Avinesh and Peni Finau's names are not in the list of 30 submitted to the Fiji FA. Again, disciplinary issue. So looks like two of Lautoka's best players will not feature at the IDC unless, as seen in the past, the LFA does a complete U-turn, pardons them for their misdeeds and gets them in at the 11th hour.
The LFA will decide in the next few days as to who they will appoint coach. It's good to see former stars Sam Work, John Monday and Jeremaia Ladawa's names being floated around.
For me, I feel they have left it too late. Just over a week to the IDC is too late to name a coach, especially if you are a big team like Lautoka and want to be in it to win it. Another problem with the Blues is the instability surrounding their mentors. Coaches come and go on a regular basis. It's sad to see a district with so many talented players and potential to the rule Fiji football being so heavily engrossed in fighting a battle of its own.
On their day, the Blues can rip apart any team in any tournament. If all is well in their camp, the Blues are second to none. They have three of the finest. In Peni Finau, although ageing, they have the most seasoned defender, in Alvin Avinesh a midfield maestro and in Valerio Nawatu, a fearsome marksman. Any team would love to have them in their fold. The Blues have some very skilful and talented youngsters in Noa Vukica, Isikeli Jeke Keli, Dave Radregai, Jone Kaloutani and Zibraaz Saheb. Then they have old faces like Jone Vonu Jr, Arvindra Naidu and stopper Jone Sorolo to add experience and depth.
They have an even mix. On paper, they are a top four team. However, it looks like the Blues have spent more time sorting out their internal woes rather than mapping out a strategy to win the IDC. It seems like having seen Navua, Tavua and Nadroga in their pool, they have their sights set on a semi-final berth already. Well, if they are thinking that way, they could be in for a surprise.