Tahiti: A Breath of Footballing Fresh Air

The Confederations Cup is usually a fairly mundane affair; only the last two tournaments have had much of a following outside of international football enthusiasts. However the 2013 edition of the tournament has captured many football fans interest and this is largely due to the first appearance of Tahiti in the tournament.

Tahiti is the largest island of French Polynesia, and has a population of just under 200,000 people. The island is situated nearly 4,000 miles east of Australia and close to 5,000 miles west of Chile; it is about as far as you can get from a continent. Thus it is not exactly a hotbed of international football – in fact their national sport is Va’a which is a form of canoe racing.

Footballing minnows Tahiti qualified for the Confederations Cup by winning the 2012 OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) Nations Cup which was hosted in the Solomon Islands. Tahiti were 1-0 winners in the final in June 2012 against New Caledonia who had knocked out New Zealand in the Semi-Finals. The task of winning this tournament has been made immeasurably easier for smaller countries by Australia’s move to the ‘Asian’ qualifying zone in 2006. However, the New Zealand team were still very much expected to win as they are a team made up of professional players whereas all the other teams at the 2012 OFC Nations Cup were made up of mainly amateurs.

Tahiti’s team is full of tradesmen, including labourers, and school teachers. Twenty-two of their twenty-three man squad for the Confederations Cup ply their football trade in the Tahitian top-fight; an amateur league. The other man – Maram Vahirua – was born in Tahiti before moving to France where he played several games for the French under-21 team and played in the French professional leagues. Now 33, the first match of the Confederations Cup was his first game for Tahiti.

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Tahiti’s performance since their famous tournament victory of 2012 has been much less impressive. They have lost five out of six 2014 World Cup qualifiers including a 4-0 loss to New Caledonia and consequently won’t be returning to Brazil next year. They ended up third in the group of four with a goal difference of ‘-10’ and only managed to score twice in six games.

Whilst Tahiti clearly do not have footballing pedigree – obvious to anyone who watched one of their games at the Confederations Cup – they brought a lot of simple joy back to playing football on the international stage. Representing their country against the likes of Spain and Uruguay clearly meant so much to the Tahitian players and it was a fantastic moment to see them score in their opening game against Nigeria. Although 3-0 down when Jonathan Tehau towered at the back post to head past Vincent Enyeama, their joy knew no bounds. Most of the Tahitian players rushed to celebrate with Tehau and their supporting staff on the bench were ecstatic; it was fantastic to watch these men have their moment on the big stage.

Despite Tahiti losing 6-1 in the end to Nigeria, 10-0 to Spain and 8-0 to Uruguay the Tahitians continued to take immense pride in moments other footballers likely take for granted. When Fernando Torres missed a penalty the Tahitian goalkeeper – Mickael Roche – leapt up in happiness and gesticulated wildly to the adoring crowd; Roche had not even touched the ball when the penalty was missed. Indeed the Tahitian manager Eddy Etaeta seemingly wanted to give most of his squad a chance; most teams use only one goalkeeper at a national tournament unless there is an injury, Tahiti used a different goalkeeper in each of their three matches to allow all three goalkeepers to experience playing against a top class international team.

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Tahiti may have lacked international quality in the football department, but they have certainly entertained at the 2012 Confederations Cup. They have shown viewers the sheer joy that representing one’s country in an international football tournament should bring footballers. They have certainly done their country proud and I for one hope to see them or another similarly sized footballing nation at another international tournament soon. Perhaps it would encourage England’s footballers to show as much pride in representing their country… 

See Jonathan Tehau score against Nigeria – http://tinyurl.com/tahitigoal

See Tahitan goalkeeper Mickael Roche celebrate Fernando Torres missing a penalty against Tahiti – http://tinyurl.com/tahitipenalty