Sand and water, ball and paddle
© Getty Images

For the past week the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup has enraptured Tahiti. There have been sell-out crowds at the To’ata stadium in Papeete and a carnival atmosphere has pervaded throughout the famed holiday destination.

Normally, however, the sport which garners the most attention in French Polynesia is va’a, the traditional Polynesian paddling pastime. Now the two events have merged on one special afternoon on Papeete harbour.

The sport is most notably popular in French Polynesia, Samoa, and Hawaii. The paddling style has been taken to a wider global audience through football with the renowned goal celebration of Tahiti’s favourite football son; former long-serving French Ligue 1 star and 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup participant Marama Vahirua. So too, Australia’s Tim Cahill, who boasts strong Samoan family ties has been known to do likewise.

While eight remaining teams participating at Tahiti 2013 honed their final preparations for Wednesday’s quarter-finals, 16 boats - having been blessed in a traditional ceremony - took to Papeete’s pristine waters, each representing one of the competing nations at the tournament. The course passed by the Tahiti 2013 stadium, with the finish line parallel to the Jardin de Paofai; a training venue for the tournament and site of Tahiti’s qualification for their maiden Beach Soccer World Cup in 2011.

While Paraguay have been eliminated from the sand-based event, the va’a crew representing the South American nation did them proud by edging out Brazil in a tense finish to a gruelling course, cheered on by a large festival crowd along the shoreline.

The popularity of va’a in Tahiti evidenced by live local TV coverage of the event. That the broadcast was co-hosted by Vahirua, and two well-known sports commentators who are cousins of Tahiti beach soccer captain Naea Bennett, added further to the symmetry on what was another cause for celebration at the first-ever FIFA tournament staged in the Pacific Islands.