IN the late 70s and early 80s, Rusiate Waqan and the late Jo Tubuna were household names in Fiji. One a feared striker and one a colossal in defence.
Marksman Waqan was a star for Nadi and Tubuna, after having played for Lautoka and Suva, had settled in well with Ba.
These two were to have been the key players for us entering the 1980 Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup in Noumea, New Caledonia.
However, both players opted out for "personal reasons". There were signs that all was not going to be well in this tournament.
But despite all the drama, both on and off the field, this team surprised many to record a historic win.
Fiji was pooled with the Solomons, New Zealand and Tahiti. Australia headed the other pool with New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and New Hebrides (Vanuatu).
With Waqan and Tubuna out, the coach (the late Sashi Mahendra Singh) was going to have to make some adjustments, especially upfront where Inia Bola was now the only out-and-out striker.
We played the Solomons first. Several opportunities were wasted and Bola was replaced. It wasn't a direct swap.
Singh sent in Nemani Waka who went into defence and Dewan Chand moved up front.
Tailevu Naitasiri's Chand made an instant impact scoring the opener after being set up by skilful Rewan Mohammed Salim.
From thereon it was the Ba class that stood out.
Wing Feroz Khan lobbed over the Solomon goalkeeper's head and right-back Semi Tabaiwalu netted to wrap up a 3-1 win after being fed by Meli Vuilabasa.
The same night there was a flare-up in the team bus between bearded goal scorer Khan and coach Singh.
Khan had reportedly said something to one of the team officials and Singh asked the player "to show some respect".
This did not go down well with Khan and things could have turned ugly if other players had not intervened.
Next morning, the two sorted themselves out and it was back to business with New Zealand up next the following day.
The Kiwis were tipped to win the pool and play Australia in the final.
Hardly anyone gave Fiji a chance but as it turned out, February 27, 1980, turned out to be a historic day for Fiji football with Chand and Vuilabasa being the heroes.
They scored two goals each to thrash New Zealand 4-0.
That was a year before we got hammered 13-0 by the same opposition.
That was our first win over New Zealand and remains our biggest triumph over the All Whites.
The victory was historic as it was the first time a major Fijian sporting team had triumphed over New Zealand.
Three of our goals came from rebounds. Chand made it 1-0 in the 10th minute, cashing in on a rebound following a strike at goal by Vuilabasa.
Then two goals inside eight minutes put Fiji way out of reach before half-time.
Vuilabasa slot home in the 31st minute and it wasn't long before the classy Salim mesmerised the opposition by dribbling three defenders before setting up Chand, whose first attempt was saved but he found the net at the second time of asking.
At 3-0, it was game up but Vuilabasa put the icing on the cake in the second half by putting the ball through Kiwi stopper Richard Wilson's legs to make it 4-0.
Two years later, Wilson and New Zealand qualified and played the 1982 World Cup.
Fiji now only needed to beat Tahiti to win the group and play Australia in the final.
Tahiti back in the 80s were also a class of their own with Erroll Bennett their top marksman.
Bennett was placed 15th in a 1999 poll by International Federation of Football History and Statistics to find the Player of the Century for Oceania.
That's how good the guy was.
They had beaten New Zealand too, 3-1.
So the stage was set for the pool decider. Injuries were affecting the Fijians.
Ba goalkeeper Bale Raniga had not featured since the win over the Solomons and Nadi's Savenaca Waqa had taken over. Chand was going to be out as well against Tahiti.
Then only 18, Abdul Mannan, who would go on to captain Rewa and Fiji many times, announced his arrival on the big stage with two goals and even a third by Vuilabasa was not good enough.
The Tahitians netted six, three of those goals going to Bennett, as we were thumped 6-3.
We finished second in the pool and had to face New Caledonia in the third/fourth place play-off.
Salim set up Vuilabasa for a goal but the New Caledonians won 2-1 with our coach venting his frustration on the referee, claiming that a lot of his calls were 'biased".
The skipper for that tournament was Chand.
Young Vuilabasa, Salim and keeper Waqa stood out.
Some of the other key members of that 1980 side were Tony Kabakoro (Suva), Abraham Watkins (Nadroga), the late Jone Nakosia and Vimlesh Singh (Ba), who captained the team against Tahiti.
The championship was over, but not the off-field drama in the Fiji camp.
Coach Singh resigned when the team returned home, claiming that team manager (the late Chandar Dip Sharma) had called him "too old" for the job.