They may have been thrashed three times, but Tahiti remained insistent that they deserved to be at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil. As coach Eddy Etaeta noted, the beautiful game’s players are 99 percent amateur and one percent professional. Therefore, why shouldn’t a nation with just 11,000 registered players, and a league of semi to non-professional teams, be part of the party?
“Our Toa Aito have earned the opportunity to represent amateur football against the greatest nations in the world,” Etaeta said ahead of the festival of football in Brazil.
“Even if we are amateur players, we have to be prepared to perform as professionals.”
Unfortunately for Etaeta and his squad, they were duly overpowered by their professional opponents and took three painful defeats. But at least they were there and that’s something that could not be said of Australia – the former heavyweights of the Oceania region – and New Zealand. The Aussies needed to defeat Japan in the final of the Asian Cup to qualify; the Kiwis had a simpler route to Brazil, in theory at least. But the All Whites – who had been unbeaten in their three 2010 World Cup matches – endured a nightmare in the OFC Nations Cup held in the Solomon Islands, slipping to the quick-moving New Caledonia in the tournament semi-final.
Capitalising on the favourites’ misfortune, a Steevy Hong Hue strike after ten minutes separated the Tahitians and New Caledonia in the final. It would be the first time a nation that wasn’t one of Oceania’s two superpowers would appear at a senior men’s finals.
And with it the Confederations Cup was given its romantic element, this Cup’s equivalent of Zaire and Haiti in 1974, or Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kuwait appearing in subsequent World Cups. To Fifa this was what the tournament was partly about: spreading the game beyond its Latin American and European heartlands. While Tahiti’s qualification was skewed anyway with just eleven nations competing in the OFC Nations Cup, it signified a new-found openness in world football.
Some would argue that Tahiti’s heavy defeats in 2013 suggests that such nations are not capable of competing at such a level, and therefore does not show the game in a good light. That belies a blinkered view and fails to address the universality of the game and the importance of exposing smaller nations to the rigours of top-class football. The Rugby World Cup’s group matches are dominated by numerous one-sided games, such as Namibia trying to limit the All Blacks to less than a 100-point victory.
As part of the team’s preparations for the games in packed stadiums, Etaeta played compact discs of crowd noises during training sessions and filled the changing room with pictures of Spain’s stars to show them who they were facing. Tahiti’s opening game in Brazil was against Nigeria, ranked more than 100 places above them, and there was a cruel element to the favourites’ opening goal with the ball rebounding off the referee to Uwa Echiejile for an early advantage.
But at 3-0 down, the Polynesians achieved their modest ambition of scoring: Jonathan Tehau headed home at the far post on 54 minutes, much to the delight of the neutrals in the Belo Horizonte crowd. It was the least they deserved after playing some creative, passing football. Tehau and his teammates celebrated by pretending to paddle canoes in honour of Tahiti’s national sport of Va’a canoe racing. This was the image that captured the world’s media’s attention, rather than Nnamdi Oduamadi’s hat-trick. It wasn’t the trigger for an audacious comeback as Nigeria added three more for a 6-1 victory.
Nigeria are one thing, Spain the then reigning world and European champions are another. In Rio three days later, the Spanish superstars ran riot wracking up ten goals for a tournament record victory. Somewhat predictably, Uruguay also lashed the Tahitians in Recife in the final group game, falling two goals short of Spain’s tally. The line-ups of their opponents show a glaring bias in money and talent: Torres, Villa, Ramos, Obi Mikel, Diego Perez and Suarez for the world powers. Delivery drivers and construction workers for Tahiti.
The only professional in Tahiti’s ranks was Marama Vahirua, a regular in the late 1990s and early 2000s with Nantes, and Panathinaikos. He was good enough to be called up for the French national U-21 side, but returned to the Pacific prior to the Confederations Cup to play in Brazil.
French Polynesia, as the name suggests, is a territory of its European parent. By far the biggest ethnic group are the Polynesians, but only a quarter of the 276,000 residents speak Tahitian and other indigenous languages. It’s a diverse territory with its 130 islands spread over two million square miles. About half the population live in the capital Papeete.
Its footballing history is relatively recent. Tahiti first ventured into the international arena in September 1952, playing out a 2-2 draw at home with New Zealand. The archipelago first contested the qualification rounds for the 1994 World Cup campaign when Australia blocked their progress with a pair of wins.
During this era the national and regional bodies invested a lot in the development of the sport, and that effort began to bear fruit when Tahiti qualified for the U-20 World Cup after shocking New Zealand. The tournament in Egypt would unfortunately result in heavy and demoralising defeats to Spain, Venezuela and Nigeria without even the consolation of a goal scored. A second appearance in the U-20 finals followed a decade later in Poland with three more defeats, but at least the defence had tightened up somewhat.
A significant sign of development was posted when national league champions AS Tefana reached the final of the 2012 OFC Champions League by virtue of a 3-0 defeat of New Zealand giants Waitakere United in the group stage. That result was all the more remarkable given the Kiwi side pummelled the visitors 10-0 a few months earlier in Auckland. Tefana were defeated 3-1 over two legs by Auckland City in the final.
As would be expected of a nation rich in pristine sandy beaches, Tahiti does well in beach football and in 2013 hosted the Beach Soccer World Cup, the first Pacific Island nation to host a FIFA tournament. They claimed the silver medal at the 2015 event in Portugal, and in 2017 repeated this success in The Bahamas.
Since their Confederations Cup appearance, Tahiti has slipped behind its rivals, and in the 2016 Oceanic Nations Cup didn’t even get out of a tough group stage, losing out to New Caledonia on goal difference after failing to put more goals past hapless Samoa than their Gallic rivals. In the formal World Cup qualifying mini-tournament, Tahiti suffered a shock away loss to the Solomon Islands which scuppered their chances of making the final, eventually won by New Zealand.
The current star of Tahitian football star is Teaonui Tehau, cousin of Jonathan and two others playing for the national side. The AS Venus striker is the most noticeable scorer in the National League in recent years and his prolific scoring rate in the 2019 Pacific Games caught the eye of at least one Dutch club. If Tahiti is to improve its ranking of 161 in the FIFA list, it’ll need the likes of Tehau to star when football in Oceania starts again.