Inside incredible journey of former Welsh lifeguard who is now aiming to manage 170th-ranked Fiji at first World Cup
ROB SHERMAN knows a thing or two about the beach after his time as a champion lifeguard on the Welsh west coast.
But he is certainly not taking things easy in his new role as the national football team manager of Fiji – 10,000 miles from home.
The 63-year-old took over as head coach in July.
As well as his remit to develop the beautiful game in the beautiful South Pacific country, Sherman has strong ambitions of leading the nation ranked 170th out of 207 in the Fifa rankings to their first World Cup.
Those chances were boosted by Oceania now getting 1.5 qualifying spots, up from 0.5 for Qatar 2022, which will see one country from the federation guaranteed a place at the 2026 tournament and another entering an inter-continental play-off.
New Zealand are the dominant team, reaching South Africa 2010 before losing play-offs for the last three World Cups.
But Sherman, who will get a first proper chance to assess his squad in their Pacific Games opener against Northern Marianas Islands in the Solomon Islands on Saturday, believes Fiji can spring a surprise.
Asked whether the Bula Boys can qualify for United States, Canada and Mexico 2026, Sherman told SunSport: “The extra qualifying spot raises the ambition of all the nations but in particular Fiji.
“The ideal is to win the one slot, that’s not beyond the realms if I’m honest. But at the very least an inter-continental play-off raises the profile of football in the region and if you do make the World Cup then happy days.
“Personally, qualifying would be a real moment of actualisation. I’ve coached since I was 17.
“Because I didn’t make it as a player, being a decent coach has been my way of compensating – so getting Fiji to the World Cup would be a moment of great satisfaction.
“Getting to the world’s biggest sporting event would be huge for all Fijians across the world.
“Fiji are very competitive within Oceania.
“New Zealand are the top-ranked country with lots of professional players. Then it’s the likes of the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Tahiti, Papa New Guinea, Vanuatu and ourselves.”
Sherman, whose son Drew was the youngest international manager when he took charge of the Cook Islands aged 28, is based in Christchurch, doing his job remotely before flying the three-and-a-half hours to Fiji for camps.
However, he is unable to select some players due to strict Fijian government laws regarding passports.
Anyone applying for a Fijian passport for the first time after turning 18 needs to spend five years living in the country, thus ruling out a host of talent abroad with a Fijian grandparent, for example, who would be eligible under Fifa legislation.
Many of the stars in the Fiji team play in the amateur national league and have regular jobs, from police and army to labouring.
FIJI’S FITNESS FIX
Therefore improving fitness levels is a key priority for Sherman and his backroom team including ex-Premier League goalkeeper Les Cleevely, especially after the “jaded” Under-23s team lost 9-0 to New Zealand in September’s Olympic qualifying final.
And he sets a high standard having completed an Ironman in 2000, the year after running the New York Marathon.
Born and bred in Aberystwyth, Sherman has always prided himself on his ridiculous fitness levels and even represented his country at THREE different sports – plus played off a single-figure golf handicap.
Football was his primary sport, playing for the Wales Under-18s after being scouted to join Cardiff City as a teenager.
He was also an accomplished athlete, holding the national junior 400m hurdles record, as well as competing for his country at the surf lifesaving championships, too.
But his football career spiralled downwards thanks to a rotten stroke of bad timing at Cardiff.
On a Tuesday in November 1978, Jimmy Andrews told Sherman he would get his debut on the Saturday – but the manager lost his job on the Thursday.
Sherman never played for the first team.
A brief stint under John Toshack at Swansea followed but his playing days “faded out” and he turned to coaching full-time, migrating with his wife to New Zealand in 2007 when he was headhunted to be technical director of the football federation.
Sherman, who has coached at three Women’s World Cups and helped Canada win Olympic bronze in 2012, was also technical director of Australia and Wales, training many of the Dragons’ ‘Golden Generation’ that reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
The Welshman said: “There was a series of things at Cardiff, I was asked to do something and refused, a legal matter, and I never had a look in after that.
“I was lucky enough to go to Swansea but a little bump in the journey became a mountain. I was damaged goods from a mental perspective.
“Ironically I coached my son’s team when he was about seven and realised how little I knew. That was the catalyst and I re-did my coaching awards. I’m in it for the player, not for me.
“I patrolled the beaches as a lifeguard in my hometown. I was British beach sprint champion. It’s essentially a 100m sprint, the idea being you get to patients quickly to improve rescue efficiency.
The athletic potential of Fijian players is enormous… Oceania is untapped for its talent due to the geography
“I did it until I was 16, then had four years without it then the Welsh Championships were in Swansea. We didn’t have a game so I went and won. The following year I was out of football so it was a nice diversion.”
But super-fit Sherman knows the journey for Fiji to the World Cup is a marathon not a sprint, especially when rugby is the country’s beloved No1 sport.
Fiji beat England at Twickenham in August then stunned Australia at the Rugby World Cup before losing a tight quarter-final to the Red Rose in France.
Sherman is determined to use the Flying Fijians’ success as inspiration for his Bula Boys and believes that can unlock a huge new scouting market for top clubs.
The head coach added: “The athletic potential of Fijian players is enormous.
“In terms of inspiration, the rugby performances have shown there are no limitations and there is massive opportunity.
“Obviously, rugby is their favoured sport, regularly playing against Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. That illustrates the difference, they are professional players and many play in Europe.
“This is the long-term objective for football. South America and Africa have a traditional yield for scouting whereas Oceania is untapped for its talent due to the geography.
“Through a World Cup or exposure of a good qualifying campaign, some very talented players could get opportunities in professional football, maybe in Australia or directly to Europe.”
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