THE 1988 Melanesian Cup final remains one of the most controversial and dramatic football games in our national team's history.
Why? Because we entered that grand final with the view to losing. Sound funny? Yeah, amazingly that's what the plan was!
We were up against the home team (Solomon Islands) and there was a lot of threat to the safety of the players.
After drawing 1-all with the Solomons in the first round-robin game, the Fijian players and officials were almost mobbed by the home fans in scary scenes.
The atmosphere was tense after defender Maretino Nemani had a ball thrown at him by one Solomon Islands officials.
There was a security threat as angry fans closed in on the Fiji bench and skipper Pita Dau and his men had to be escorted out by the police.
Fiji players and officials were targeted again after they beat New Caledonia 2-0. The team bus was stoned.
So when a return showdown between Fiji and the Solomons was announced, the Fijians had a tough decision to make.
Should they play and risk their lives or forfeit the match?
That's how bad the situation was in this inaugural tournament, featuring Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomons and New Caledonia.
Defaulting the match would have put the Fiji FA in trouble with the Oceania Football Confederation, so that idea was chalked off.
The day before the final, the coach (the late Billy Singh) was adamant that the Fijians were in no mood to play.
"Solomons can have the gold cup but we can't risk the lives of our players," Singh had said.
Finally, the Fiji team management reached a decision.
The Solomons crowd and the neutrals were somewhat surprised to see Fiji march on with a relatively weakened team and only 10 players.
The stadium announcer told the crowd that since a lot of the Fijian players were nursing injuries, the side could only field 10 reps in the final. This brought about some sympathy from the home fans.
While some Fiji players were nursing injuries, it wasn't as bad as it looked.
The plan was to send a weakened 10-man side and have at least four players pull out through injuries before half-time or early in the second spell.
This would have left the referee no option but to call off the match and award the game to the Solomons as according to FIFA Laws of the Game — a match cannot be played with fewer than seven players in any one team.
At least four or more regulars stayed back at the hotel and there were no reserves.
That Fiji team for this championship had regulars Nasoni Buli (Lautoka), Maretino Nemani (Suva), Dan Lutumailagi (Nadi), Abraham Watkins (Nadroga), Lote Delai (Ba), Vimal Sami (Ba), Ravuama Madigi (Ba), the late Simon Peters (Labasa), Shafique Ali (Nadroga and Nasinu), Jone Watisoni (Nadroga and Nasinu), Freddie Evans (Lautoka) and Dau (Lautoka).
But this was the chance for players like the Tui Namosi, Ratu Suliano Matanitobua, Ronaldo Mani (Rewa) and Ronald Chaudhary (Tavua and Rewa) to shine. And shine they did.
The Solomons crowd were left stunned as Fiji found themselves three goals up following strikes by Ratu Suliano, Chaudhary and Watkins.
Back to 11
By the break, Fiji was back to full strength as Delai joined the fray and by the second spell, more reinforcements were brought in from the hotel as the Fijians tasted blood.
The plan to lose went out of the window and in the end, Singh and his men celebrated a historic Melanesian Cup triumph.
Surprisingly, the Solomons crowd, this time, were better behaved.
Their team, captained by a Fijian (Matai Vave from Vanuabalavu), settled for silver while Vanuatu took bronze with a 1-0 win over New Caledonia.
Earlier, Dau, from Topline, Lautoka, scored in the 1-all draw with the Solomons while Peters and Ali found the net in a 2-0 victory over New Caledonia.
Vanuatu was hammered 8-0 by Singh's men with Madigi (2), Evans (2), Sami, Peters and Lutumailagi being the other goal scorers.
This cup triumph will long live in the memories of the players who took that trip to Honiara and despite the many set-backs and threats they faced, returned home victorious.