When asked as to why Tahiti’s beach soccer team are such a big hit with the people of Espinho, Raimana Li Fung Kuee flashed the widest of smiles, providing an answer to the question before he even opened his mouth.
The Tahitians are as happy-go-lucky and easy-going off the pitch as they are talented on it. Since arriving in Espinho over a month ago in preparation for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015, the Tiki Toa have become virtual honorary citizens of the city, with the local people taking them to their hearts.
“It’s the biggest asset our country has to offer: our charm and the smiles on our faces. It’s our trademark,” Kuee told FIFA.com. “Being able to travel overseas and share that with other people is the most beautiful thing that the sport has given us in these last few years.”
A winner of the adidas Bronze Ball at Tahiti 2013, where the Pacific islanders reached the semi-finals, Kuee and his team-mates are making the most of their trip to northern Portugal: “We’ve made ourselves at home in Espinho: we train on the beach, we go to the surfing schools – which we’ve got at home too – we’ve been to Porto, and we’ve swapped gifts. I think people have got used to seeing us around. And when the tournament’s over, I’m going to spend a few days here with my family, visiting the region.”
It’s the biggest asset our country has to offer: our charm and the smiles on our faces. It’s our trademark.
The Tahitians have felt so at home on Portugal’s Costa Verde in fact that their sightseeing trips included one destination that would never be recommended in a guide book: the local volunteers’ fire station. Taking up the story, Tiki Toa goalkeeper Jonathan Torohia, who works as a firefighter back home in Tahiti, said he could not miss out on the chance to pay his Portuguese colleagues a visit.
“It’s an attraction as far as I’m concerned,” said the custodian with an inevitable smile. “I wanted to meet colleagues, see how they work and what kind of equipment they use in this part of the world.”
This is far from the first time the laid-back Tahitians have won people over with their relaxed approach to life. The people of Brazil were similarly charmed when the country’s footballers pitched up at the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013. The big difference between that historic appearance and the beach soccer team’s Portugal 2015 adventure is that the Tahitians are genuine contenders for glory this time around.
Much has changed for Tahitian football in recent times, since the nation’s first appearance at a FIFA tournament, which came at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, a landmark achievement that was followed by the beach soccer team’s qualification for Ravenna 2011 and their stunning campaign on home sand in the world finals two years later.
“It’s all happened very quickly and, in the case of beach soccer, we’ve developed so fast that we can now compete with the best in the world, despite the fact we’re only a little island in the Pacific,” added Kuee, speaking in the wake of their defeat of Paraguay on Sunday, a victory that booked them a place in the last eight at Portugal 2015 with a game to spare.
“We’re not a surprise package anymore. People expect big things from us, though I think we can handle that kind of expectation. And one thing we can’t stop doing, whether we’re favourites or not, is to smile. That’s just Tahiti for you.”