Fiji goes down fighting

The 1961 Ba team after their Inter-district-championship win in Nadi. Vice-captain Zikar Ali is standing at the back, fourth from left. Picture: SUPPLIED

The first ever South Pacific Games was held in Fiji 60 years ago from August to September in 1963. And one of the biggest achievers in the games was the Fiji national football side which managed to reach the finals.

However, their hope of creating history was crushed when the side went down 8-2 to New Caledonia. Many, even today, do not understand what led to the huge loss, given that Fiji was in winning form having just returned from an Australia tour where they won 12 out of their 17 test matches.

The only surviving member of the 1963 national football squad, Zikar Ali, shared his thoughts on what transpired. Ali is the oldest surviving national football rep in Fiji but he believes there are two more surviving members living in Canada and the United States.

Ali was selected into the national squad when he was only 19-years-old. By then, the rising star had already played a few winning matches for the renowned Ba side. According to written reports and newspaper articles from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Ali was a national gem — rising through the ranks as one of the best strikers in the country.

Unfortunately, his football career was cut short when he received an injury in the final of the SPG. “I can still clearly remember that day, we played in the afternoon under very heavy rain,” Ali recalled.

As expected, Ali was on the starting line-up in the finals after a spectacular performance with the national side during their tour in Australia. He still vividly remembers what happened at the National Stadium that day when a promising career in the football arena was taken from him and had changed his life forever.

Only seven minutes into the SPG final, Ali was deep in the opponent’s half when he received a cross-pass from a Fiji center. He managed to slot the ball into New Caledonia’s goal box to give him running space before it was stopped in a small puddle of water.

Just as he was about to open the scoreboard for Fiji, a New Caledonia defender popped out of nowhere and pounced on Ali, stepping directly on his right leg. The collision left Ali rolling in agony on the ground, unable to stand back up.

“I wanted to place the ball a few meters in front of me to give me a good kick at the goal before a defender appeared out of nowhere and stepped on my right leg.” Medics quickly jumped onto the field and helped Ali off to a waiting ambulance before being whisked off to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital.

Doctors at the hospital told him the dreaded news, he had fractured his right leg and the injury was significant. That was the last time Ali ever set foot on the football field. The news devastated him because he had worked hard from very humble beginnings to try to make something of himself.

Ali shared about how soccer was supposed to open doors for him and help his family. He was brought up on a cane field in Raravu, on the outskirts of Ba Town. Growing up, Ali’s family depended solely on the crops they produced for their everyday meals.

Farm work was the norm for him and his 10 siblings and their daily routine included planting sugar cane, rice and other vegetables to sustain themselves. “I came from a very poor background; both my parents were farmers and so were us kids,” he shared.

As a child, Ali was always fond of playing soccer — it was something that helped him “get away” from their everyday struggles on the family farm. “I would often listen to soccer on the radio. “We would go to my father’s friend’s place on Tuesdays and Thursdays to listen to the radio and that was where I would listen to international soccer matches.”

During his early school years at Varavu Muslim Primary, his love for soccer grew with each passing year until he finally got the opportunity to play soccer when he was in high school. “I only managed to get as far as Form 3 and was able to play in the Secondary Schools Inter-District-Competitions.”

Because of their financial situation at home, Ali was the only child in his family to reach high school. “Let me tell you about how life was for us back then. At times we would skip meals; our only income would come from the harvest of our cane. But I’m thankful because my parents were very hard workers.”

Ali said he realised he was an exceptional football player when he was approached by Sashi Mahendra Singh during one of his high school matches. Singh was a former Fiji football coach and was known as “the father of Ba football”.

“After a game one day, he came up to me and asked me for my parents name and where we lived. He told me that he would be visiting my parents soon.” Singh arrived at their doorstep the next day and told Ali’s parents that he wanted to take him to the Ba soccer camp to join the district team.

His parents saw this as an opportunity for Ali to be able to earn for himself and to escape the poverty they were facing at home.

“But after two days of training with Ba, I ran away and came back home.” Ali said he was only 17-years-old at the time and found it hard adjusting to the new environment. “Coach Singh again came home and begged my parents to persuade me to play but they told him that I would play the following year when I’ve gotten a bit older.”

Ali finally agreed to play for the Ba side in 1961 and helped them win their first ever IDC after defeating Nadi 2-1 in the final of the competition. He helped his Ba side record their historic win scoring a goal in the final against Nadi.

A few weeks after Ba won the IDC, Ali was selected into the national side that toured Australia that same year. In 1962, Ali became the first local football player to be imported from an existing team into another.

His talent attracted attention to the point he was offered a contract with Nadi at the 1961 IDC. “They offered to provide me with employment and a house. “I loved my Ba side, but because of my family’s financial situation, I had no choice but to play for Nadi.”

He accepted the offer from Nadi Football and was given a position at the Morris Hedstrom Company in the timber department. Ali spent almost a year there before he was once again selected into the national side to compete at the first ever SPG that was held in Suva in 1963.

During an interview at one of his daughter’s residences in Delainavesi, Suva, last week, Ali said that the weeks he spent in the hospital were one of the lowest points in his life. “I asked my doctor if I could play again, he said that my leg was seriously injured and they were unable to say whether I could play again – it was heartbreaking.”

While he was in hospital, Ali shared about the struggles his wife and two children faced since he was without work. Ali said he and his wife were both very young and they found it quite difficult to survive when he was unemployed.

“Can you imagine — sometimes she would ask me for 10 cents, but I would turn her away because I had no money.” As he lay in his hospital bed in Suva, he would think long and hard about the future of his small family. There was so much uncertainty and fear in his heart about what would happen to them.

“Who would want to hire someone who is injured? And if I don’t have work then how will I feed my family? Those were the thoughts running through my head at that time” Football was the only thing he knew.

Going back to “tilling the land” was not on the cards for Ali, he didn’t want his children to be brought up facing the same struggles he did. He said it was hard to accept that just when life looked like it was heading in the right direction; a single incident had changed the course of his life.

The sport he once loved so dearly was taken away from him. He had to begin anew. After being admitted at the Colonial War Memorial hospital for over a week, he received a message from the general manager of Morris Hedstrom Ltd.

“He (general manager) had called my doctor and asked to speak to me regarding work.” Ali said he was unsure what the call was about because weeks before the SPG, his request for leave to the Morris Hedstrom management was turned down. “I basically ran away from there.

That’s how bad I wanted to play soccer.” Given the circumstances, Ali suspected they wanted to fire him. “But the doctor came and said ‘Your boss called and said that when you have fully recovered, just know that they have a different and better post waiting here for you.’ I just broke down and cried on my hospital bed.”

Ali finally recovered after 18-months at the CWM Hospital and found out that he was promoted to the post of a cashier, a position where he would not strain his injured leg. “I wanted to make a comeback into football, but I just couldn’t walk properly.”

Several attempts to do so over the years had proved unsuccessful. When he realised he was never going to play football again, he was devastated. “I tried to play a few times but it just wasn’t the same for me. I just had to accept that I would never play soccer again.”

Despite the setback, he did not let it dampen his spirit as he still had to make sure his family was taken care of. “I honestly thought of taking my family back to our farm in Ba, but I did not want them to go through the struggles I did as a child.”

Inspired by the kindness shown to him by the Morris Hedstrom management, Ali went to great lengths to make sure that his department made good sales every day. His hard work did not go unnoticed and Ali was promoted to department supervisor after just a few months.

“I wanted to show them how much I appreciated the job they had given me. “I was a very hard worker because I come from a farming background, so sitting at a desk and managing money was a “piece of cake” for me.”

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months before Ali realised that a career in business was not so bad after all “In fact, I was very good at what I did. It got to a point where I started to make more sales and development than other sections in our Nadi branch.

” Two years later, Ali was offered an opportunity to take up two training courses in marketing at the Fiji National Training Council in Suva. “I took the course and had excellent results. Something that always motivated me to work hard was the thought of my wife and kids when we had nothing, I didn’t want to go back to that situation.”

Finally in 1968, Ali became the first person in Fiji (apart from the Europeans) to become manager of a Morris Hedstrom branch. “And I was the youngest manager among the other European managers at different branches.”

Ali continued ahead with the same hard work mentality for a few more years before he was offered a huge promotion. “In 1972, I was promoted to a good position at our headquarters in Suva. I was offered a house and vehicle and by this time, I already had three kids.

“I am someone who never wastes time. Whenever I have time on my hands, I spend it doing something worthwhile.”

Ali also spent some time as coach for the Nadi district team in the 1980’s, before giving up the position. Ali finally retired from work in the early 1990’s in order to spend more time with his children and grandchildren.

“Both my daughters have kids and it’s just a blessing to be around them. I am very thankful to God for my provision and taking care of my family.” Looking back, Ali said that a single phone call to his hospital bed 50 years ago had transformed his life.

“If it wasn’t for that phone call, I wouldn’t be here today.” Despite this, Ali still thinks about how things could have been different had not gotten injured. “Football was my life, what would have happened if I didn’t get hurt?” At times, the old-timer gets emotional when watching a football game because it reminds him of what he could have become.

“I just never had the chance to reach my full potential.” When asked on how far did he thought he could have reached, Ali said he would have probably secured a contract overseas and would be retiring in some retirement home by now.

“But things happen for a reason, and I am happy that things turned out okay for me and my family in our darkest hour.” Ali said that listening to his parents and never missing his morning prayers were two major pillars to living a long and healthy life.

“This is something that is affecting the younger generation these days, they think they know everything and pay no attention to their elders.” Despite all of this, Ali believes that he has lived a long and fruitful life filled with excitement. But at the end of the day, whenever Ali is alone, he always finds himself looking at pictures of himself when he was still playing football.

“It was a good experience, it was something I really wanted to pursue, but God had other plans.”

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