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APISALOME TURUVA of Fiji's national soccer team practices Monday at Oliver Sports Park in Hayward. (ARIC CRABB Staff)
HAYWARD — After a fast-paced but clumsy scrimmage in a Hayward sports park Monday, seasoned Uruguayan soccer coach Juan Carlos Buzzetti gathered his players around him in a circle.

"The air is different, the ground is different, the sun is different from where you come from," the ponytailed 62-year-old coach intoned. "Without adjusting, you can't do things."

It was the first time in more than 15 years that Fiji's national soccer team had touched American soil, and the current crop of players was struggling somewhat with the fancy field turf at Oliver Sports Park.

For a team accustomed to the heat and humidity of the South Pacific, this week's seemingly pleasant Hayward weather — sunny, breezy, dry and in the high 60s — also was a bit of a systemshock.

"It's very cold here," said 19-year-old striker and rising star Roy Krishna, sniffling and wearing a knit cap. "But we'll adjust."

The Fiji Football Association's nearly two-week tour of the Bay Area began Saturday and has been a source of huge anticipation for many in the East Bay's substantial Fijian immigrant community.

"All of my friends are going," said Hayward resident Rajesh Chand, 38, who took a break from his work as a machine operator to watch the scrimmage Monday. "Everyone is asking me where the games are."

Chand moved to California from Fiji about a decade ago but knows many of today's national players by name. He keeps track of Fiji news by checking the online version of The Fiji Times, the island nation's biggest newspaper, as well as several soccer-specific Web sites.

Team Fiji's first match is tonight against top-notch Santa Clara University, followed by the University of California, Berkeley, on Thursday and more area teams in the coming days.

Sports and the drama that surrounds it is a big deal in Fiji. On many days, The Fiji Times publishes more letters to the editor about rugby, soccer and other popular games than it does about the political turmoil and economic instability that have followed a December military coup.

Fijian immigrants often shrug when asked about the impact of the latest coup. But they can't stop talking about soccer.

Raveen Rama, 60, who lives and coaches in Hawaii but was visiting his daughter in Hayward this week and came to the sports park to scout the talent, said much has changed since he grew up in Fiji playing backyard soccer in the 1960s.

"They really groom them up now. It has improved a lot, and I think the standard of soccer in Fiji is comparable now to New Zealand, and probably getting closer to Australia," Rama said. "As far as individual talent is concerned, I think they can match any country in the world."

Although unnoticed by most Bay Area soccer fans, the team's visit has won the support of college and regional soccer teams. Meanwhile, local Fijians are feting the national players like superstars. A bevy of local volunteers drives them around and has offered the team financial support.

"We're trying to do something for these guys," said Hayward mortgage broker Arif Khan, the chief organizer of the Bay Area trip. "I know their struggles."

Khan said the close-knit tradition of "matagali" — or village clan — stays with Fijians even after they move to the U.S.

Growing up in the Ba province of Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu, Khan played for a district team known for churning out the country's best soccer stars.

"The only reason I didn't pursue it is because there's no money, there's no future," said Khan. He earned a scholarship to study accounting in Malaysia and immigrated to Hayward after an arranged marriage with a woman who was already living here.

He said other Pacific region teams, such as New Zealand, travel to South America for preparation, but "these guys didn't go anywhere because it's so expensive."

Today, Khan is particularly fond of Krishna, who at 19 is the youngest player on Fiji's current roster and being watched closely by Fiji soccer fans.

Like Khan and many other Fijians, Krishna is a multiethnic, multilingual product of the island country's diverse heritage.

The gifted striker, or forward, hails from a village near the sugar-producing town of Labasa, where his father labors for the government-run Fiji Sugar Corp. and his mother is a homemaker of Indian descent.

Indo-Fijians make up about 40 percent of the country's population. The British ruled Fiji from 1874 to 1970 and, in the earlier part of that tenure, brought in thousands of Indians to work in the colony's sugar industry.

Krishna, like most of the team's other players, is fluent in Fijian, Hindi and English. While the players scream at each other in Fijian on the field, they get their instructions in English from Buzzetti, whose first language is Spanish.

"Get used to the ground," the coach yelled during the Monday scrimmage. "Get used to the ground!"

After a few hours, the players appeared to be better adjusted. The well-liked Buzzetti took the reins of the cash-strapped team late last year after coaching in the neighboring island nation of Vanuatu.

A native of Uruguay, Buzzetti has lived in the South Pacific since the 1970s.

"Football is passion for me," he said.

He added that he is trying to build up a first-rate operation while also respecting the fact that for many Fijian families, education trumps professional sports — especially when even the country's top players don't get paid very much.

Saiyad Ali, 37, Fiji's assistant coach and a former player, said he hopes Buzzetti's decades of experience will help propel Fiji into the Pacific Games later this year and eventually qualify the team to compete in the World Cup.

Meanwhile, Khan's hope is that more exposure outside of Fiji might help some young players get college scholarships abroad.

On Monday afternoon, his family treated about 25 players and the coaches to an Indian-style lunch of rice dishes and naan.

Buzzetti said he was blown away by the treatment his team has been getting in Hayward. And the feeling was mutual.

Ronald Mani, a 42-year-old Hayward resident who was on the Fijian national team when it visited the U.S. in 1989, said he was impressed with the team's professional attitude.

"Our boys used to drink, party all the time," said Mani, who serves as pastor of a local Christian church. "But these guys, no, man. The standard of soccer is getting high."