Monday, 15 June 2015

NEW INTERVIEW: Our interview with Meli Vuilabasa (Ba and Fiji legend), by Henry Dyer and Kieran James


Left to Right: Meli Vuilabasa, Kieran James (University of Fiji), and Henry Dyer. At the 1982 IDC Final, Meli played for Ba and Henry played for Nadi while in that era they were regular teammates in the Fiji team.
Interview with Meli Vuilabasa (Ba and Fiji Legend)
2 June 2015 @ Meli’s house in Matalacake village, Ba
By Henry Dyer (Nadi Legends Club) and Kieran James  (University of Fiji)

Kieran James: Please tell us first how you got involved in playing soccer.

Meli Vuilabasa: I played for Ba for 12 years and Fiji for 11 years. I started playing in 1977 and retired in 1989. I first went to the Fiji Secondary School tour of New Zealand with Abdul Manaan, Tony Kabakoro, John Williams, and Mohd Salim.

Henry Dyer: Around the same time I saw their picture come out in the Fiji Sun. I thought “these guys are lucky” but I ended up playing in the district matches against them.

KJ: Why did you choose to play soccer instead of rugby?

Meli: I actually had started a family. There are so many other important things such as family. I had to work too. I only played rugby in primary-school. I played for the Ba Primary School team.

KJ: So why choose soccer instead of rugby?

Meli: I had some reasoning. In rugby you get hurt and you might break your neck during scrums. I thought in soccer if you break a leg it will just be the leg you are using. Your other legs and hands will be OK. You will still be moving around. If you break your neck you are finished. Ba Soccer first saw me playing at Fiji Secondary Schools. I played first for Blackstone Club and then I played for Flying Arrows.

Henry: They are an old club.

Meli: And I played for Elevuka.

KJ: Who was the first person to bring you to Ba Soccer?

Meli: There was this guy who lives just in the next village. He told me that the coach would want me to be in the team. The guy from the next village was Subhan Ali. The coach was Sashi Mahendra Singh (“the Father of Ba Soccer”) [1920-1990]. This was the father of Fiji coach Billy Singh.

KJ: How many winning IDC teams did you play in?

Meli: I played in four winning IDCs.

Henry: What was the best year for you?

Meli: Being selected to go for the World Cup Elimination Rounds. That was some time in the 1980s.

Henry: In the very early 1980s.

KJ: Do you remember the 1982 IDC Final between Ba and Nadi?

Meli: I missed that penalty-kick in the shoot-out! Playing on their home ground Nadi were a hard team to beat. They could not win that game and they did not want to lose either. They did their best to hold us to a 0-0 draw. Then the penalty shoot-out was anyone’s game. Everyone missed except one or two people, man! We were ordered to replay on a neutral ground but Nadi did not turn up so it was awarded to us. We marched into the ground but then we heard that Nadi was not coming.

KJ: Do you think Ba did the right thing by turning up at Lautoka when there was a prior agreement among the officials from both camps not to play?

Meli: At that moment I personally did not think of anything. All the talks were being done by the officials. We just went to present ourselves at the neutral ground. We thought everything was fine with Nadi.

Henry: The players were just following orders. We did not know of the agreement between the officials.

Meli: Whatever was decided, when that was made known to us, we thought it was OK for the Nadi players. Whatever happens it is just what we have been told to do. We were not told the feelings of the Nadi players. It’s the officials who mess up things.

KJ: Is it true that Vinod Patel got you the job in the bank?

Meli: I started working at Vinod Patel’s in 1978. Then I was laid off from work. The problem is when you are a player you are on top and people look at you as if you are up there [high and mighty]. For working conditions you had to be there at 8.00am. I was there at 8.20 or 8.15 or 8.05 so the manager told me to go. I started working with EPM – Emperor Gold Mining. I started working there and coaching the Vatukoula district soccer team. It went up to the finals. Those finals were between the lowest team in the premier league and Vatukoula and they would determine which club would play in the following season’s premier league. But then we lost in the finals.
There was one guy who was working with BNZ (Bank of New Zealand, now ANZ) called Ganen Singh. He came down and saw me and asked me why I don’t come back to play for Ba. I had left Ba to play for Vatukoula. I said OK. Then I came down and started playing. He asked: “How far did you go in education?” I said: “Form 6”. He said: “Did you pass?” I said: “Yes”. He said: “Get your certs [certificates] and we will get you a job in the bank”. Ultimately I got a job in the bank. All of the business houses in Ba gave references for me including Vinod Patel. So BNZ management accepted me. I worked there for 26 years. BNZ was bought by ANZ. I stopped work in 2013. They gave me a package.

KJ: What is your comment about the Nadi team from that era?

Meli: The Nadi team was one of the hardest teams to beat.

Henry: What about Suva?

Meli: Suva not so much. When you play soccer against a team it depends on how well you prepare yourself. If you don’t prepare well you are bound to find the team hard. I was always a fit person. Even Rudi Gutendorf said I had the highest work rate. Even with that fitness I still find Nadi was the team to beat. Nadi had a strong striking force – Rusiate Waqa, Henry, etc. We had kind of the same material. The Nadi backs too were tough – Prem Chand, Inosi Tora, Emasi Koroi (Bacardi), Hussein (left-back), and Tela Qoro (right-back). 

KJ: Where did you mostly play?

Meli: I used to play in the midfield. I started out in the striking position and then I went over to the midfield.

KJ: Is it true that, in the words of Nadi team doctor Dr Raymond Fong, Nadi had the skill and Ba had the strength?

Meli: That may be the reason Ba found it hard. We also had the skills.

KJ: Who were some of the best Ba players back then?

Meli: Joe Tubuna was an inspiration. Jone Nakosia was the tower at the back. Vimlesh Singh [Sashi Mahendra Singh’s son] (“Master”) - we had an understanding with this guy. Whenever he had the ball he knew where to put it when I was around. Often this was a devastating blow to the other team.
There were three Sami brothers. They were not so big but they had the heart to play against some of the big stars. Bale Raniga would be yelling from the back. Sometimes his kicks would give us time to go have a breather. Save [Savenaca Waqa, Nadi goalkeeper] and Bale could kick from one end to the other with no-one touching. Sometimes they would both kick to each other and the spectators would say: “Hey, we want to watch the game!” 

Henry: What do you think of Savenaca Waqa versus Bale Raniga – who was the best?

Meli: I think both were good. They both had the same ability. They could read the games well. However, Save was usually quiet but when he was fed up he would start yelling and swearing. I would put them at the same level. When Save was goalkeeper in the Fiji team we felt relief when we saw a huge man standing between the goalposts. It left a very small empty space.

KJ: What is your comment about Semi Tabaiwalu?

Meli: He is a quiet person so he is a very dedicated man when it comes to playing for Ba or Fiji. He knows how to encourage people. He has the ability to psych players up.

KJ: Was Henry a very physical player for Nadi and Fiji?

Meli: Yes, he was. We were selected because we were both very hard-working in the Fiji team.

KJ: What is your comment about Rudi Gutendorf?

Meli: He was a very good coach.

Henry: How many overseas coaches did you have and who was the best?

Meli: I had a few.

Henry: Who did you learn most from?

Meli: Mike Everett was my first overseas coach. He was an English international.

KJ: What did you learn from Rudi?

Meli: He wants people to work hard. All coaches want that but Rudi was very specific.

Henry: Rudi would know if you were weak. He would want someone who could work in attack and defence.

Meli: The last time Rudi coached us we were good boys. We had to tell him what was going on. Before the team was selected he said that the two of us [Henry and Meli] were going to be selected. 

KJ: What is your comment about South Pacific Games in Samoa, 1983?

Meli: Tahiti is one of the hardest teams I ever played against. Errol Bennett was a French international; that guy was so sneaky. I played in SPG, 1979, and we played against Tahiti. Then we played against them in 1983. Just because they had people who were playing in France they were very skilled players. No wonder they were chosen for France. We also gave them a good go.
In Samoa in 1983 they scored a goal against us [in the final] and we started pushing and shoving. Billy Singh was Rudi’s assistant coach then. Billy hit the fourth official with an elbow to his jaw. The pushing and shoving carried on to the linesman and the players. 

Henry: It was pre-planned. Rudi mentioned there could be some corruption with the French officials [officials from the French-speaking countries] favouring their own. The fourth official and the linesman were all French. They pre-planned controlling the game and we pre-planned our reaction.

Meli: That ball that went in was a goal.

Henry: Was it really?

Meli: It went past the goalkeeper’s line. I saw Save push it out from behind the line. It did not reach the net. When Save pushed it from the back then Abdul Manaan played it. That was one of the best teams Fiji could produce.

KJ: What are your comments about the Lautoka team from that era?

Henry: Lautoka beat Ba in the IDC; that was in 1984.

KJ: We met Wally Mausio at the Lautoka Club late last year 2014 and the picture of Wally and Henry is up on the Nadi Legends Club website.

Meli: I was working for Manubhai’s when I used to go to the beer factory and meet Wally Mausio.

KJ: Do you remember the 1985 New Zealand tour?

Meli: That was one of the worst tours. People actually just wanted to have a good time. Sometimes in Fiji there are so many players who come up from very humble beginnings. When they are selected to go overseas that is something big to them. They go overseas just to enjoy themselves. They forget about whatever responsibilities have been bestowed upon them. I am one person who does not entertain all these things [such as drinking] when I’m playing. 

KJ: What is your comment about Fiji’s 3-0 win against Newcastle United in 1985?

Meli: Yes, we beat them. That got me thinking: Were they really Newcastle or just a name given to that team?

Henry: They had Tony Anderson, Chris Waddle, and some of the English internationals.

Meli: They were very skilful with the ball. We had to work hard especially the midfielders.

KJ: Savenaca must have played well that game.

Meli: Oh, yes.

Henry: Who was your idol when you were playing? In other words, who did you respect on the field?

Meli: That is a good question. There were a few players whom I respected. From the Ba team I respected Joe Tubuna and Bale Raniga.

Henry: Why?

Meli: Because Joe and Bale were both mature players and good leaders. Just playing beside them gave me the guts. I started when I was 17.

KJ: Were you in the car crash with Joe Tubuna?

Meli: I was drinking with them in the Ba Hotel from morning until lunch. They told me: “Let’s go to Tavua”. I said: “I can’t go but you people can go”. We were drinking at the Ba Hotel. It was demolished and they are building a new one. The Ba Hotel is still being rebuilt. It was hard to believe that Joe Tubuna was killed in that accident. I never said anything to my boss. I just walked out of my work when I heard it about the next morning. I was working for Vinod Patel. I just cried and cried. I knew that the three main people were gone and would not be able to play again. The other two in the car crash, Inia Bola and Semi Tabaiwalu, never played again after that. 

KJ: Do you remember Fiji’s 1-0 win over Australia in 1988?

Meli: Yes, I remember. I played in that game.

Henry: I was dropped from the team for disciplinary reasons. 

Meli: I remember but I did not know for what reason he was dropped.

Meli: It was not an easy game to play. I was playing in the right-back position.

Henry: You took my position.

Meli: We had the same set-up as Rudi had taught Billy.

KJ: So Rudi’s influence continued on after he had left?

Henry: For a few more years.

Meli: We had the overlapping back. If play comes to the right-wing the right-winger knows the right-back will come up. The ball is given to him and an extra player is brought up front.
We beat Australia. We were very happy but we were very surprised. They were a good team, no doubt about it. I myself was surprised that we beat them. They were a better team than Fiji. When we went to Australia they thrashed us 5-0.  Our goalkeeper was Akuila Ravono (from Suva).

Henry: He didn’t have the same skills as Save [Savenaca Waqa] or Bale [Raniga].

Meli: The Australian captain smacked the goal nearly on the halfway line. That goalie [Akuila] was dreaming or something.

[Henry laughs.]

Meli: Save [Savenaca Waqa] had work commitments and was not able to be released.

Henry: It is almost 20 years ago. 

Meli: So many things happened. We are glad that someone has come up [here to visit] wanting to know. We are forgotten heroes now, no-one cares about us. When we want to go to watch the games we have to pay ourselves.

KJ: Do you have any contact now with Ba Soccer?

Meli: No, not now. I don’t go to watch the games. Do you know why? There was one IDC; Rewa played Ba in the semi-finals at Govind Park in Ba. Ba was winning 1-0. There was a free-kick. Ravuama Madigi, a Ba man playing for Rewa, scored the goal against Ba. After that there was another goal scored by Rewa. I took one stone and threw it into the Govind Park River saying “I will not watch any more Ba games again”. They really broke my heart. They were winning 1-0 and then they lost.

KJ: What is your comment about the standard of Fiji soccer now versus in your time?

Meli: Looking at the Under-20 there is a tremendous improvement needed overall. This is the worst Fiji team to ever go abroad. They were kicking the ball just to get it away from the goalmouth. They wait for the ball so people come in and snatch it from them. 

[KJ note: Meli was speaking after Fiji’s 8-1 Under-20 World Cup defeat to Germany but before its 3-0 win over Honduras.] 

Meli: It is the little things. Germany had more profiled soccer. They knew what they were doing. They knew the end result of whatever they started. That is why Fiji was thrashed 8-1. It’s a pity, it’s just too bad.

KJ: Do you think it is easier for Indian players to become coaches and officials than Fijian players?

Meli: That’s a good question. Let me think. I would say it is [because of] the way Fijians live. We [the Fijians] are the best players in Fiji. That probably hinders us from moving forwards into the administration side of things.

Henry: And also they don’t give us a chance.

Meli: If we are actually asked to assist we would go and assist. 

KJ: Has Ba Soccer asked you to assist?

Meli: Yes, many times, but I said no because the admin is set up in such a way that one man controls everything. It should not be like that. When there are a multitude of counsellors things will go better.

KJ: That is a Bible quote.

[Henry laughs and Meli smiles.]

Henry: What do you think can be done to improve the standard of soccer in Fiji?

Henry Dyer in Ba Town
Meli: I think the focus should be on soccer and not other things. If people feel they will gain monetary value just by participating that is the worst thing. If you have a team and you want that team to play soccer it has to be prepared well according to the standards of today. In the other parts of the world soccer is very much advancing. It has advanced to the highest levels but in Fiji it has not gone up the first step.

Henry: We went up the first step and now we have gone down five steps [laughs].

Meli: One step forwards and five steps backward. In the South Pacific Games in Noumea we beat New Zealand 4-0. I scored two goals. This may have been in the late-1970s. Dewan Chand, a policeman for Tailevu-Naitasari, scored two goals too. I still remember the boots I wore. They bought me new boots – KARZ. Fiji Football bought them for me. We were the Pacific Kings. Surprisingly we were camping with New Zealand in the same hotel. We had breakfast together.

Henry: What team did you enjoy playing against?

Meli: I guess it was them [Nadi]. I had friends in the Nadi team.

[All laugh.]

Meli: We became good friends in the Fiji team.

Henry: We were district rivals but the very best of friends.

Henry Dyer in Ba Town
KJ: Which team was the best – Nadi or Ba? For me I think it is very hard to compare the six IDCs in a row for Ba versus the four national league titles in a row for Nadi.

Meli: The record speaks for itself.

KJ: Yes, but which record – the IDC wins by Ba or the national league wins by Nadi? 

Henry: He can’t answer because I am here, I should not have come.

Meli: If Nadi won that many league titles and Ba won that many IDCs they would have been at about the same level. However, it is up to the individual which team he or she thinks is the best.

Henry: How did you meet your wife?

Meli: I met my wife in Nadi at the 1982 IDC.

Henry: So while you were playing you were looking around?

Meli: She was looking around for me! In Fiji if you have a name up there if you are a man you will be able to get a good wife or if you are a woman you will be able to get a good husband. I have five children, one boy and four girls. I have two girls who are married. I have eight grandsons and granddaughters. My wife is one of the best things that I have. She is more precious than...

Henry: Gold!

Meli: Anything. We have been married since 1983.

KJ: Nowadays we see very few indigenous Fijians at district games but Henry tells me it was different in the 1980s. Why is this and can it be changed?

Meli: It can be changed, James. There are so many Fijians who are educated now. When they see things they can make out what is happening. Even the uneducated can understand. In Fiji Football there is not a single administrator who is [indigenous] Fijian. At the district level there is only a few. Of the eight districts there are two Fijian coaches and few or none in the administration. The people feel that the game does not belong to them.

Henry: They feel left out.

Meli: I will tell you an experience. We were training for an IDC one year. Something happened. We won the league that year. The officials promised us before the IDC they would share the money but they didn’t. It was fortunate that we had a Fijian official who would always speak up for the boys, Joe Tuivou, who was Ba manager for NBF (now BSP, Bank of the South Pacific). That guy was the best referee in Fiji. The Fijians were the best referees in Fiji. He was appointed that year as Ba manager. He arranged for that money to be paid before the IDC. The other officials had other ideas about it. We actually marched out of training just because of that. I was the only person who went back when they gave it in writing that they would pay us.

Henry: So then politics was going on back then...

Meli: It’s not a new thing.

[All laugh.]

Henry: What the boys go through now, it’s just the crumbs; we had the cream.

Meli: We had the icing on the cake. Ba was probably trying to improve its financial status.

Henry: But to improve it on the boys’ shoulders.

Meli: At the back of MH there was a Ba Social Club. I don’t know where that money is going to. The Ba officials did not inform us about the Fiji FA Veterans’ dinner last year. Fiji FA looks at the economic side of things but not the players’ welfare.

KJ: A Nadi lawyer once said that Fiji FA and the districts treat the players like teabags.

Meli: Yes, that’s true. We were paid $20 for a win, $10 for a draw, and $5 for a loss. What is that? That is pretty much peanuts where you come from. That is payment for a slave.

KJ: And you don’t see the Fijian boys these days playing soccer in the village.

Meli: Probably for the same reasons you have given. They feel excluded from the game. Many Fijians especially are interested in playing rugby now. They are better looked after and get recognition.

Henry: And contract offers.

Meli: There are still some Fijians who like playing soccer at the moment.

Henry: But just for the love of the sport.

Meli: For a successful man there is always a good woman beside him. I played for another seven years until I retired [1983-89] and my wife [Lucy Vuilabasa] was the one who gave me a reason to be better. 

Meli: We are the forgotten heroes. However, not completely forgotten so we meet many people today who know our names but we don’t know them.

KJ: Have you got any soccer stories you want to share from your playing days?

Meli: Yes, here is the first one. We were playing against Nadroga in Ba. It was a semi-final. We won the game. I got past the centre-back of the Nadroga team. Kini Tubi was their stopper. The ball went past me. It was a 50-50 chance. He was a Nadi player then he went to Nadroga. He is one person who does not hold back. I had known some of these professional fouls. I stamped on his leg and he broke his ankle. All of his leg was cemented in Lautoka Hospital. Two days after the tournament we went to visit him. I felt that was a humane thing to do. My Dad, my brothers, and I went to see him and we presented him with $100 cash.

Skull, Ben and friends (Ba hardcore traveling fans )
KJ: That’s great. Have you got any other stories to share?

Meli: Yes, here is the second story. At the 1979 South Pacific Games in Suva versus Tahiti, I was the right-back. After I kicked the ball something gave a loud sound. The commentator said I might have broken my leg. When he heard the commentator my father started crying at home. He was having a few beers listening to the commentary. However, the noise was made by the plastic protector on my shin pad; I had not broken my leg. I stood up again and played the full game but we lost 1-0.

***** THE END

Henry Dyer points to the ANZ Bank branch in Ba Town where Meli Vuilabasa worked for 26 years.
Fiji Sun reporter Maika Kasami (first on left) with Nadi legends Henry Dyer (centre) and Seremaia Tale @ 2015 Fiji FACT, Prince Charles Park, Nadi.
Henry Dyer has one last drink at Renee's Pub, Naviti Street, Lautoka after watching Nadi's 2-1 league defeat of Ba at Govind Park in April 2015.

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