Friday 15 March 2019, 07:01

Silvestre gets to the roots of Fijian football

  • FIFA Legend Mikael Silvestre went to Fiji

  • School visits and an award ceremony on the agenda

  • Former French international believes Fijian football has real potential for development

With a 19-year professional career that took him to six countries in three different continents, from France to India via Italy, England, Germany and the USA, Mikael Silvestre knows a lot about where the beautiful game is played. But up until recently, he had never set foot in Fiji.

That all changed thanks to the FIFA Legends Programme, with the former defensive stalwart of Les Bleus visiting the Pacific archipelago to see where they currently stand in footballing terms and to make the most of his experience to help in their development. A few days after getting back, he spoke to about his trip to the other side of the world.

Mikael Silvestre’s missions in Fiji:

  • Meeting officials from the Fijian Football Federation, including president Rajesh Patel and head coach Christophe Gamel

  • Visiting schools and football academies

  • Taking part in a national football award ceremony

Mikael, what did Fiji mean to you before you made this trip? What did you already know about the country and the culture?

It was a journey into the unknown for me, other than the image that I had in my head of the sport they play to a very high level there – rugby sevens – the sandy beaches and palm trees. I was welcomed by warriors with songs and a ritual when I got off the plane. There was a ceremony where I was seated and given a potion made of spring water and roots from which they had extracted the juice. It was all very traditional. I was thrown right into the Fijian culture and given local dress – the "Bula shirt". I soon realised that "Bula" is a word that is used a lot… Hello is "Bula". When you see someone, you say "Bula". If you see them several times the same day, it’s "Bula". There’s no good morning, good evening, good night: it’s "Bula" tout le temps! (laughs. "Bula" literally means "life" and is used as a shortened form of the local greeting "Ni sa bula vinaka", which means "I wish you happiness and health").

You visited local schools while you were there. How did you share your experience with the kids and what important messages did you try to get across to them?

I spoke a little bit of my experiences but what I like most is to have conversations with them, so I let them ask me questions, which means that we get to the point straight away and they can ask me exactly how my experience as a player can be of use to them. Sometimes they asked me about what’s happening in football at the moment, how they can stay motivated, how I managed to get to the level that I played at. I tried to give them my impressions and share what I can recall from the various stages in my career. It was interesting. The thing that kept coming up again and again was how to have a successful international career. I told them that there was no secret, it was simply hard work. Motivation is important but on its own, it won’t get you very far. You have to work hard and draw inspiration from those who succeeded before you, take them as your model and try to go beyond them.

Conversations like these mean a lot to the kids, but what do you get out of them?

I came home with memories of smiling faces. I make them happy and they give me plenty back in return. They smile, we take the time to sit and have a chat, and I also got to discover the local culture. I have relatives from the Caribbean, from Guadeloupe, so the countryside didn’t surprise me, but what I really found interesting was to see the difference in cultures and the blend of India and Oceania. This cultural aspect was fascinating.

Mikael Silvestre’s career to date:

  • FIFA Legend, former defender, 41 years old

  • Domestic career: Rennes (FRA), Inter Milan (ITA), Manchester United, Arsenal (ENG), Werder Bremen (GER), Portland Timbers (USA), Chennayin FC (IND)

  • International career: 40 French caps (2 goals)

  • FIFA World Cup™: 2002 (group stage) and 2006 (Final)

  • Winner of the FIFA Confederations Cup (2001, 2003)

  • UEFA EURO 2004 (quarter-finals)

  • European U-19 champion 1996

  • Winner of the UEFA Champions League 2008

  • Five English Premier League titles (2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008)

  • FA Cup winner (2004)

FIFA Legend Mikaël Silvestre visits Fiji

You met a lot of people who are the backbone of football in Fiji. How do you think the federation is faring when it comes to developing football?

They are highly motivated and making a real effort along with the necessary investments. The development work costs money, but there are people on the staff who are motivated, both on the pitch and off it. You can’t have one without the other. It’s being borne out in the results, and not just the first team, where the international coach has already achieved an enormous amount in the space of two years. You can also see it across all age groups, as well as in women’s football, where they are getting up to New Zealand’s level in their region. That’s quite an achievement.

Fiji has a real love of rugby. How is football measuring up in the popularity stakes?

Coming from the Premier League, I saw a lot of people there wearing Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal jerseys. They follow the Premier League with a keen interest and most people knew who I was, since Manchester United are really popular and I played for them for nine years. There is a football culture, despite the fact that rugby is still the number one sport. Football is gaining in popularity though, and it has real development potential.

To sum up, what were the highlights for you from this experience?

The welcome I received will live long in the memory. When you arrive, you’re really tired but the welcome makes an impression on you, and we were very well received. The school visit were highlights as well. A thousand pupils were outside in 35-degree weather waiting there just to shake our hands, talk and get autographs. It was also interesting to see so many people involved in football get recognition for their work, and not just players and coaches but administrators as well, with awards for fair play and for various clubs. That was lovely. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to play football with them but we’ll make up for that next time – that way I have an excuse to go back there!