USA-native Lisa Cole is relishing her role at the helm of one Oceania’s up-and-coming women’s footballing nations, Fiji.
Since December 2018, and following the implementation of a dedicated women’s development programme, the Fiji women’s national team have climbed five places in the FIFA Women’s Rankings from 72nd to 67th.
It’s an upward trajectory Cole intends to build on with the primary focus the OFC Women’s Nations Cup on home soil in July. Then all going to plan, the FIFA Play-Off Tournament would be the side’s next stop on the journey to qualifying for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023.
As part of preparations Cole took her side on a brief visit to Australia where they played friendly matches against local Sydney club sides, before twice taking on the Philippines women’s national team.
The camp was about much more than just the results of these friendly matches for the former goalkeeper.
“Actually the trip was a perfect start for me with the group,” Cole said.
“From my perspective we learned a ton about the group and the players individually. This is that the trip was about. Who can play at this level? What do we need to improve to play at this level?
“And when I say this level, it is not just about being the best in OFC this year. The assignment is to try and get to the World Cup, and this experience gave us a look at a team that has qualified out of the Asian Football Confederation already.”
The Philippines was a great nation for Fiji to test their mettle against having qualified for their first FIFA Women’s World Cup in January and in the midst of preparing for the ASEAN Cup this month, the Alen Stajcic-coached side represented a step outside the comfort zone.
“We played a team that has qualified out of Asia. They are way ahead of us from a preparation stand point, they played five games in 2022 prior to playing us and we have not played since 2019.
“It was a huge ask for the team, especially under a new coach, but it wasn’t about winning for me. It was important for us to see early, where we need to get to and we now know the level required because we’ve seen it and played against it,” Cole explained.
“In the Philippines team we really wanted to see how we matched up versus a team that has already qualified for the World Cup and with this experience the players now understand that little things matter.
“Fitness matters, getting opened up early matters, working on both sides of the ball matters. We can’t take breaks in the game and compete and the players now have a very clear picture of what we need to get to as a team, and as individual, to play at this level. And we have to raise our level if we want to accomplish the goal of qualifying for the World Cup.”
Although gaining experience and taking learnings was the biggest part of the exercise, Cole said there were positives to take from the two encounters despite having to swallow two back-to-back losses.
“We had some great moments, we scored two goals and the players did rise to the standard at times, but in the end our speed of play and fitness are huge issues for us. However in general, these are things we can control.”
Taking amateur players from their comfortable domestic league and putting them into a high-performance environment has led to some issues for Cole, however she believes overall there are some real talents in the wider squad, and throughout Fiji, all of whom have an opportunity to be part of the movement.
“We had some discipline issues that kept players off the trip and then out of games while on the trip, so that needs to improve. Players need to make a commitment to the team and each other in order for us to get the best team on the field,” she said.
“Players need to understand and do their role. There are a lot of good individual players in this country but not all of them are team players and the old saying is: “It’s not the team with the best players, but the players that make the best team, that win”.
Cole’s determined approach to achieving the side’s objective, coupled with a stricter level of discipline than the team might have experienced previously proved a learning curve for many of the players in camp according to USA-based striker Trina Davis.
“I never met Lisa until I came to join the team for the Australia camp and she coaches differently to Marika [Rodu, the former women’s national team coach] which was hard for us as a team,” Davis explained.
“I think we had some tough times and rules, as we had our phones taken everyday also. Lisa and I are both American so I understand how she coaches, but for the rest of the team I think it’s a little hard for them.
“But I think we learned a lot as a group, and things to help us improve as a team moving forward to the qualifiers,” she said.
Back in Fiji the players have returned to their clubs but the coaching staff remain in contact and constantly remind them what they should be doing in terms of fitness and individual development between camps.
While ultimately Cole would like to see the side in action against international opponents again ahead of the July tournament, for now she continues to follow club trainings and games to ensure the best available talent is in the squad come July.
“I like the group I have now but we are still looking. I left a couple of players out of this group for Australia with specific things to work on so I am hoping they have improved and may get back in the group.
“So yes, new players are still a possibility.”
Fiji are set to open their 2022 OFC Women’s Nations Cup account against the Solomon Islands on Thursday 14 July at ANZ Stadium in Suva.