- Tahiti travelled to Brazil 2013 as the first champion of Oceania other than Australia or New Zealand
- They conceded 24 goals in Brazil, the most in the history of the competition
- All but one of Tahiti’s players in Brazil were amateurs
It is not uncommon for neutral fans to take up the cause of an outgunned minnow. But the Brazilian fans, known for warm hearts and a love of romantic football, took to the Tahitians with genuine affection.
The islanders were not at the competition out of charity. They were champions in their own right. Their appearance came at the tail end of the most successful year in their sporting history. A win over New Caledonia in the 2012 OFC Nations Cup final sparked off massive celebrations all over the paradise island, as the Toa Aito were crowned champions of Oceania - the first nation other than Australia or New Zealand to have achieved this.
That accomplishment alone was more than any of the predominantly amateur squad could have imagined. But to find themselves among the best teams in the world in Brazil, up against Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria – all continental champions – must have gone beyond their wildest dreams. “We had to be realistic about what we could do,” said Vallar, a central defender for local club A.S. Tefana. “We didn’t think we would win our games, so we decided to try to make it fun for us and for the fans.”
A positive approach
And that is precisely what they did. Under the tutelage of coach Eddy Etaeta, they opted against the standard fare of a little team on a big stage. They did not sit back and try to play the odds and the counter-attack. Instead, little Tahiti played football. It was not the best football ever seen in the international arena, but it earned them respect. It was an honourable approach.
When they scored a goal in their opener, a powerful header from Jonathan Tehau against African giants Nigeria in Belo Horizonte, the crowd responded with a roar of delight to rival any of their own Seleção’s goals en route to the title. The team celebrated by forming impromptu and invisible traditional boats and rowing them to the delight of the fans.
At the end, the 6-1 loss was their most respectable result of the tournament. And that goal was their only one. But despite an 8-0 defeat to Uruguay and a 10-0 loss to defending world champions Spain, Tahiti kept pushing forward, kept trying to move the ball. They were on the world stage and they were going to play football no matter how bad it turned out. “It was our moment in the stars,” said goalkeeper Mickael Roche, who conceded 24 times in Brazil over those few incredible days. “I will never forget the crowds or what they did for us. It was unforgettable.”
And in one of the indelible images in Confederations Cup history, the Spanish national team – all icons and legends – stayed long on the pitch at the Maracana to pose for photos and swap shirts with the men with big hearts from a little island in the middle of nowhere.