THEY WILL be the ultimate minnows, the Tom Thumb of international football, David v Goliath to a new dimension but next summer Tahiti will be rubbing shoulders with football’s elite in the Confederations Cup in Brazil.
Yes Tahiti, the deluxe honeymoon destination comprising 118 islands eight and a half hours from Los Angeles. Tahiti, the locale for Mutiny on the Bounty, originally starring Errol Flynn with Marlon Brando heading the cast for a remake. Whatever your image of Tahiti, a hotbed of football is unlikely.
With 146 clubs and 11,201 registered players, football is the most popular sport among the 245,405 inhabitants. Marama Vahirua is Tahiti’s most famous footballer having made a name for himself in France with Nantes but thanks to the goal by Steevy Chong Hue as the Iron Warriors defeated New Caledonia, Eddy Etaeta’s side became the first team other than Australia (no longer part of OFC) and New Zealand to be crowned Oceania champions.
The win saw Tahiti rise 41 places to 138th in the latest FIFA rankings but they are not so much a national team as a family side. Lorenzo, Alvin, Teaonui and Jonathon Tehua are regulars for Tahiti, which is believed to be a world record. The Tehuas scored nine of Tahiti’s goals in the 10-1 win over Samoa in the opening tie of the OFC finals with eldest brother Jonathon, 24, scoring a double, twins Lorenzo and Alvin netting four and two respectively, and their 19-year-old cousin Teaonui one.
The Tehua boys chose football over taekwando because of the proximity of AS Tefana – it was the closest sports facility to their home and school. Alvin said: “I’m very proud to play in the national team with my family. We are a unit within the national team. I think it helps the side as a whole.” Lorenzo added: “I’m happy we play together – it’s taken a long time for us to come together in one team.”
International football anoraks will have noted that the rise and rise of Tahiti started three years ago when their Under-20 team broke the country’s qualifying duck by reaching the World Youth Championship in Egypt.
But with Australia now in the Asian Confederation, any Oceania tournament should provide New Zealand with what amounts to a free pass to the finals. Yet the All Whites drew with Solomon Islands before losing to New Caledonia, opening the way for the mother of all underdogs to qualify for Brazil 2013.
Team Tehua will no doubt make alternative headlines next summer and while the days of double-digit scorelines are virtually extinct at major finals, the 2013 Confederations Cup will surely see the elite of world football using the Tahitian upstarts as a football punch-bag.
Etaeta, understandably, took a positive approach and said: “We may play against the likes of Brazil and Spain which will be amazing for our country. We will enjoy this moment for now and then start planning towards the future. We’re happy with what we have achieved but we are in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup Oceania qualifying stage three. That was our main objective, our main goal. Everything else from here is a bonus for Tahiti.”
Football Writers’ Association members who travel to Brazil for the Confederations Cup may also be reporting on Tahiti when the most successful country in football stages the 2014 World Cup finals. The top four teams in the OFC Nations Cup – Tahiti, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Solomon Islands – move on to a home and away series with the team winning the most points going through to a play-off against the fourth-placed team in CONCACAF (the North, Central American and Caribbean Association) for a berth in Brazil.
While this may not raise too many eyebrows around the world, New Zealand, with their comparative wealth of professional experience, will be given a run for their money by the amateur teams of the smaller Pacific Islands nations.
Tahiti at the World Cup finals sounds unlikely but then so did Tahiti taking part in the Confederations Cup.