Tahiti’s year in the sun

It may not be uncommon for the towering stands of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium to echo with song, but visiting teams are seldom, if ever, celebrated by the home crowd’s chorus. Yet this is exactly what happened to Tahiti during their FIFA Confederations Cup campaign in 2013, so you can forgive team’s captain Nicolas Vallar for needing a moment or two to take it all in.

“At the beginning, when we started the Confederations Cup, we were surprised at all the people showing their support for our team,” Vallar told the FIFA World Football Museum.

"But when we heard them chant for Tahiti, it gave us goosebumps on the field."

A year earlier, in the Solomon Islands, Tahiti had booked their ticket to Brazil with an historic 1-0 victory over New Caledonia in the Final of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup – becoming the first nation other than Australia or New Zealand to claim the continental crown.

Eddy Etaeta’s men had begun that campaign with an emphatic 10-1 win over Samoa – a win that included goals for the team’s three Tehau brothers Jonathan, Alvin and Lorenzo, as well as one from their cousin Teaonui Tehau.

Tahiti beat Francophone rivals New Caledonia by the odd goal in seven and then rounded off the group stage with a 4-1 rout of Vanuatu. They edged the Solomon Islands, the tournament’s hosts, 1-0 in the semi-final before seeing off New Caledonia by the same scoreline in the Final. Steevy Chong Hue’s clinical 10th-minute strike being enough to seal a tense victory in Honiara.

Captain Vallar, an intelligent central defender, made his debut at the start of the tournament and would go on to claim the Golden Ball award as its best player. He admits that any dreams of qualifying for Brazil only crystallised once they saw New Caledonia shock favourites New Zealand in the other semi-final.

“Before the tournament, if you had told me that we would win the OFC Nations Cup I would have said ‘no, it’s not possible’, but when it happened it was amazing. It was incredible for the players and for Tahitian football. It’s difficult for me to describe that feeling.

“When we started the competition, our first aim was to get to the semi-final. After we won that game and found out we would play New Caledonia in the final, we had a lot of confidence having beaten them in the group stage.”

Vallar’s words hint at the sense of freedom that underscored their campaign and came to the fore when the team ranked 138th in the world took to the FIFA Confederations Cup stage against Nigeria, Uruguay and Spain.

“We were realistic about our chances,” says Vallar. “We knew we were not likely to win these games so we wanted to take pleasure on the field and it would be fun for us and for the fans.”

Tahiti’s positivity in possession and commitment to not sit back and defend won praise from fans and opposition players alike, and a well-taken goal in their opening match against the African champions in Belo Horizonte was greeted as if they had won the tournament.

A corner from France-based professional Marama Vahirua – the long-lost son of Tahitian football – was met by a towering header from Jonathan Tehau. Vallar said his team wanted to enjoy themselves, and Tehau certainly made the most of his celebrations, wheeling off to join Vahirua and teammates in a paddling celebration - a nod to the nation’s national sport of va’a or outrigger canoeing.

The goal reduced the deficit to 3-1 and for a brief time saw the Polynesians genuinely go toe-to-toe with Nigeria, before the match returned to the script and eventually finished 6-1.

Heavy defeats against Spain (10-0) and Uruguay (8-0) would follow but Tahiti’s spirit of adventure continued to win them fans in Rio and Recife, as well as back home in French Polynesia.The OFC Technical Director Parick Jacquemet, a former coach of the Tahiti national team, says the teams’ success could not be written off as a magical fluke and that it should serve as an example to other small nations in the Pacific and around the world.

“The success in 2012 was the result of a long-term process and vision to develop young players and coaches with the buy-in of clubs and support from the French FA,” says Jacquemet.

“These players all started at six years of age and went through the centre of excellence at 12 or 13, so they had ten or more years’ development when they won the Nations Cup.

“You are not necessarily limited because you are small – Tahiti only has 260,000 people – but if you are very committed and organised you can succeed.

“If you have a vision, if you focus a lot on player development and link it to coach development, then if you have that long-term vision you can win and succeed at international level.”

2013 will be remembered as a watershed moment for football in the Pacific, with Tahiti leading the charge.