History of Fiji football

THE year 2018 makes the 145th year of the codification of association football. Association football or soccer as it is more popularly known is itself of uncertain origin. We cannot have veracity as to exactly who it was that first kicked a “round ball and aimed it at a goal”.

The English codified football and in October 1863, formed the first football association. Football in the codified ‘association football’ forms inherited features of similar outdoor sports like rugby and field hockey among others. Football in the form favoured by English establishment schools was initially played by rampant individuals. Teamwork, tactics such as passing were foreign to the game.

This was the form of football that took roots in Fiji after European contact and settlement that eventually led to Fiji’s cession to Britain on October 10th 1874.These events were characterised by week-long feasting “magiti” and revelry, as the sport was popularised as “magic football”.

The formalisation of Fiji as a British crown colony, led to increased missionary activity with most of the population converted to Christianity by the end of 1800s. Increased mission activities included the setting up of schools with a Puritan Victorian doctrine of morality and discipline. Sports and physical training were essential elements of this Victorian ethics in schools.

The British and other European colonisers took with them a whole spread of games such as the various forms of football along with cricket, hockey, tennis, rowing, swimming, cycling, golf, polo and racing of animals among others. Football was the most simple and inexpensive of these games and found instant favour with the people of the new countries rapidly annexed under colonialism.

The spread of football by the turn of this century demanded some form of unifying governing body. In 1904 representatives from Belgium, Denmark, France, Holland, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden formed FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football). They remained a mainly European centred organisation, until the growth of the sport among the colonies in South America created a polarised world.

The Catholic and Methodist primary schools in the early part of 1990s especially in urban centers like Lautoka, Suva, Nadi and Sigatoka among others had integrated schools and football was a particularly cross-culture experience.

Major sports like athletics, football, rugby union, hockey and cricket were organised and administered under the trinity of European, native and Indian leagues. This is no easy re-tracing of the sports under these divided leagues. For the most part the competitions were localised or of an ad hoc nature.

District representative sides in Suva, Rewa, Levuka and Navua made up exclusively of Europeans played against each other and against teams of visiting ships. The mercantile bias of transport and communication in the colonies made this tradition of local selections vs traveling sailors, a universal norm in this period. Later on, in the 1920s and 1930s they sometimes consented to play against local Fijians of Indian descent selections in friendly or challenge matches.

However, these games were not organised as regular competition. After 1910, association football teams on a district level by Europeans formed largely as demanded by the occasion, comprising players from the social clubs and associations to which they belonged.

Football remained a European social or business house sport in the first two decades of the 1900s. Fijian football competition were organised at the same time as that of European competitions.

Despite the limited spread of missions and their attendant schools — a generation of mission educated indigenous Fijians and some descendants of indentured Indian labourers emerged with numeracy, literacy and proficiency in team sports such as football.

The newly-freed Indian indentured labourers and their descendants set up schools to complement the Christian mission schools and the small number of government-funded institutions. Many of these schools were built as community and or religious enterprises. Christian priests and teachers by training had some sporting background and introduced a variety of sports.

Rugby and football were the most popular and easily introduced given that it required little or no technical equipment and played on any reasonable flat surface.

The popularity of rugby union and the early formation of Fiji Rugby Union, albeit as a European settler body in 1913, led to organised competition and an earlier timeframe within which the oval ball code was popularised among Fijians.

Early matches by European selections included a team made up of mainly New Zealanders working on the construction of the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva in 1913. They took on the might of New Zealand All Blacks on their way back from a tour of South America. This match led to the urban legend created around the influence of P.J “pay Jay” Sheehan, a Kiwi plumber as the originating force for Fiji rugby.

Watching from the wings were native Fijians who chaffed at the bit to show their flair and skills in this code. It came soon enough.

The 1924 rugby tour of Samoa and return matches against the Tongans set the stage for international rugby in Fiji.

The later codification of rugby and soccer along ethnic lines overlooks many facts.

Prime among these was the common mission schools influence in introducing sports like soccer and rugby, apart from other sports, like cricket, hockey and netball.

Fiji’s politics and demographics changed rapidly from 1874 to the new society in 1930. The islands now had permanent settlements by indentured Indians and their descendants. There were growing numbers of a part-European population.

A sizeable Chinese immigrant population increasingly controlled small businesses. The commercial sector found rapid favour among free immigrants from India, particularly Gujratis and Sikhs.

Religious, sectarian, culture and social groups also evolved during these transformations. Education was still sparse and divided but more community-built schools were established alongside those by the missions.

The new generations that emerged from the advances in Fiji by the 1920s now clamoured for leisure time and sporting activities. Clubs, usually imitative of European setups in sports like athletics, football and rugby, sprung up and flourished among all groups.

There was increased pressure on government schools and the CSR to build amenities for sports, to at least provide access to sports grounds.

Elite sports remained the exclusive domain of Europeans and the colour lines were strictly adhered to. Those who crossed it faced ostracism no matter which side of the line one belonged to.

* Next week: New Society and Football 1920-1938.

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