FIVE weeks back, together with some old friends, I went down to watch my struggling home team Navua take on Lautoka in a National Football League match at Thomson Park.
In the group were former reps Istafaque and Haidar Hussein and more notably Mohammed Hussein "Toma", one of the most talented players to have come out of the district.
The match ended in a draw, 2-2. Afterwards that evening at a kava session was the usual post-mortem discussion of the game and an ailing Navua side.
Mohammed Jannif, goalkeeper Sheik Moshin's dad, was also there. Everyone had something to say but what really got to me was what "Toma" uttered.
"Skills nahin hein," he pointed out highlighting the lack of quality ball players.
Some weeks later, I met another fine former Navua rep and coach, Kishore Kumar, at Wishbone in Suva. He picked the same problem.
These two had been there, done that and were very skilful with ball at toes. Kumar won the B Division IDC crown twice in the 70s. "Toma" was a key member of the master Ravi Chand-coached Navua High School (now Vashist Muni College) team as they won the Secondary Schools IDC an unprecedented three years in a row from 1980-'82. He also featured prominently as Navua almost upset Nasinu in a three-match promotion relegation series in 1986, only to be denied by Tagi Vonolagi in a penalty shoot-out at the National Stadium.
This has been a disastrous year for Navua football. Gopal Naidu took up the hot seat vacated by Anil Sharma and has since been under the spotlight. One win in 16 games and facing relegation, staunch Navuan Pravin Chand, of Fairtrade Auto, sponsor of Fiji National Rugby League 2012 champions Makoi Bulldogs, intervened and straight away Navua won their last two games to avoid the drop.
Without Sharma it was always going to be tough holding back the big names. The last of them, Pene Erenio, left for Savusavu in the June transfer window.
In two tournaments, Navua has lost six and drawn one, having conceded 14 goals, an average of two per game, and scored only two — one each to strikers Vineet Chand and Inia Boko.
The only bright side in those seven games was the 1-all draw with Ba at the Fiji FACT, under the guidance of veteran Seveci Rokotakala.
Naidu has found it hard to convince business firms for financial support. The players are still owed $200 each from the league wins over Tavua and Nadroga and some are still awaiting their $50 each from the draw against Lautoka. That's why many did not train last week and almost all stayed away on Monday and Tuesday. Business people in Navua have been reluctant to help saying they lack confidence in Naidu and Naidu's public declaration in the other daily that Navua Football Association did not have funds to pay their players did not do him any favours. Many have called for him to step down but he won't budge much to the anger, frustration and dismay of Navuans, both here and abroad who want to see a competitive team run by a financially healthy association.
Makoi businessman Chand is Navua's saviour. For him it's not about Naidu, it's about his love and affection for his home team. Yesterday, he went out of his way to convince some other businessmen friends from Navua to come together for the sake of the district and players. Praveen "Baba", of Praveen's Kava, Chand's childhood friend, has pledged financial support with Rajeev Prasad, of Rajeev's Service Station and another prominent businessman who did not wish to be named. Naidu, meanwhile, has done his own "collection". An informal get-together is being planned for tomorrow where the players' dues will be cleared.
"This is about getting the players, the management and the people of Navua together as one," quipped Chand.
All home grown players, that's their strength — something that was missing for many years. Given the right training and guidance, they could surprise any team. All they need is a good tactical approach in their first two games against Labasa and Lautoka. If they can map and carry out a good strategy based on the right players in the right positions and the right formation to suit their game plan, anything can happen over 60 minutes. Either Labasa or Lautoka could be in for a little surprise. It all depends on what coach Ramulo Kaibau comes up with.
The lack of preparation time, given the hiccup caused by the NFA's failure to pay the players on time. That's one, secondly the lack of depth on the bench. This could come back to haunt the team in the later stages of the competition when the going gets tough and injuries and fatigue creep in and for that reason I see the games against Nadroga on Friday and Tavua on Saturday as Navua's toughest. Both those games will be under scorching heat, unless the weather changes, and with the Navua bench looking flimsy as it is, they will be really put to the test. So even a surprise win or draw in their opening games won't be enough. It will take a herculean effort for Navua to make the semis as there is also lack of experience in the side.
Players to watch
Defender Kolinio Sivoki. If I had my way, this 17-year-old would be in the national training squad straight away. What a talent, he has it all. Is well-built for his age, tall, stays composed under pressure, reads the game well, has pace to burn, and is good with aerial balls. Watch him in Ba and I am certain Navua will face a fight to keep him in the next transfer window. Parneel Kumar gets better with each game. Was wasted out wide, he will get to strut his stuff in central mid-field.
They have lost to all their pool opponents in earlier tournaments this year — Lautoka (1-3 in BOG), Tavua (0-1 in FACT), Labasa (0-1 FACT) and Nadroga (0-2 in FACT). They will do much better than that and could well be the surprise package of the IDC.