Esala Masi was the first.
An NSL Grand Final winner in 2000 with the fabulous Wollongong Wolves (more about that later), the powerful central striker was the first ever from Fiji to make his mark on club football in Australia.
Signed in 1994 following a Fijian U-23 tour of Australia, Harry Bingham brought the unknown 20-year-old to Morwell Falcons. And he’s been in Australia ever since.
Masi racked up over 40 appearances for his beloved national team during his golden era with the Bula Boys, who compete in the Oceania Confederation, and is still going strong in Brisbane’s local leagues, living in Caboolture with his wife and daughter and turning out for local league side Mitchelton FC (plus in a few veteran tournaments).
He’ll see how his 42-year-old bones feel before deciding if he goes around again this year.
A Roar fan, Masi won’t miss a chance to watch his countryman Krishna in the Hyundai A-League, and feels a sense of pride that Fiji now has a second star on the national club stage.
“He’s got a good attitude, because it’s a hard thing coming here from Fiji and trying to make it,” he told www.a-league.com.au
“I follow him [Krishna] whenever they come to Suncorp to support him. And a lot of the Fijian community support him when he comes to town with Wellington.”
Should Phoenix end up in this season’s Grand Final, Masi might have some sage advice to Krishna after his own – quite remarkable – experience at the turn of the new millennium with Wollongong Wolves.
In one of the greatest comebacks – and games – in Australian club history, the part-timers who played a gorgeous brand of football took on the then-behemoth of the NSL, Perth Glory.
Over 43,000 at Subiaco witnessed a sublime first half as the home side raced to a 3-0 lead – the Championship was coming to Perth for the first time. Or was it.
It all changed in 45 dramatic second half minutes.
Three goals dragged the contest and momentum back in Wolves’ favour, sucking the life out of a deflated Glory who went on to lose on penalties after a pulsating 3-3 draw.
Wolves’ triumph was a huge story – the media loved it and so did Masi. “It was the first time I’d played in front of 43,000 fans,” he says, still savouring the memory.
It was also the game that featured a memorable half-time speech from Wolves coach Nick Theo. “He didn’t say anything at all. Walked up and down, up and down with his hands behind his back,” recalls Masi.
“The fourth official walked in to say we had to go back out and just before everyone stood up he turned to us and said: ‘If Perth can score three goals in the first half, you can score four in the second half and win the grand final.’
“And credit to the boys, as soon as we got the first goal the morale lifted and everything changed. Perth’s body language dropped. And we believed we could do this. And after the third goal we knew we’d win after penalty kicks. For those who were there, it’ll stick in the mind of everyone.”
The return to Wollongong was even more special. After a red-eye flight back to Sydney, an insatiable media was waiting for the team. Mayhem ensued.
On the drive down to the ‘Gong, the team bus was welcomed by police cars at Bulli Pass who escorted them into town before the Fire Brigade welcomed their local heroes with a burst of their water cannons.
The fans were waiting at the Fraternity Club for a celebration with the players that remains one of the most joyous nights in local football history.
Masi remains the only Fijian to date to have won a national league grand final. But that was to be his only Grand Final medal. By the following year Masi had left the Brandon Park club and, as a result, missed out on the club going back to back at Parramatta Stadium (defeating South Melbourne 2-1 in the grand final).
He’d moved to Newcastle by then, under coach Lee Sterrey and later Ian Crook. But it wasn’t the same as his joyous four years on the South Coast, though his two goals in a 2002 second leg Major Semi final win over Glory was a highlight.
As for his present-day football career and Masi’s wife isn’t quite as enamoured with the Brisbane local leagues. In fact she’s never seen her husband play. “She says it’s too slow. She says, ‘When I met you, you were in the NSL and it was so much faster!”
At least the Masi family can relive their golden era whenever the new Fijian hero Roy Krishna comes to town with his Phoenix team-mates.
Masi is now looking at coaching. He may end up back in Fiji – possibly as the national team (currently ranked 192 in the world) coach. He may one day coach Krishna.
Masi knows the Fiji FA President personally but paints a gloomy picture of Fiji football. In short, he says don’t expect a flood of talent to come through (though it will be fascinating to see how Fiji perform at the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand this June, their entry made easier by the fact the host nation weren’t required to qualify through the OFC).
“I’d like to say it’s improving and there’s a structure for development but every time I go back I don’t see anything like that for young players. Nothing seems to happen. It’s more about not having a will to change. It’s also to do with attitude.”
It was this lack of discipline that inspired Masi to better himself and try to make it in the ‘big league’ of Australia all those years ago.
“I’d watch senior players after games abusing alcohol and all that. But I stayed focussed and dreamt one day of playing in the national league [in Australia].
“Someone like Roy Krishna was always disciplined. No wonder he made it to the Wellington squad.”