Famous in France, yet largely unknown in the rest of the world, Marama Vahirua is a star of Tahitian football. The only player from the island to have played professional football to date, the Papeete-born striker has been Tahiti’s pride and joy since making his debut for Nantes back in 1998.
A celebrated figure in the French game for the last 15 years, Vahirua, who is currently on loan with Greek club Panthrakikos, has never forgotten where he comes from, marking every goal he has ever scored with a special tribute to the island of his birth.
In 14 seasons in Ligue 1, the pint-sized front man has dropped to one knee 91 times and given a couple of strokes on an imaginary paddle. It is a goal celebration loaded with meaning for a player who harboured childhood dreams of becoming a surfer, and has always enjoyed a canoe race or two with his old friends.
“I’ve made the paddle a symbol of my country,” the player told FIFA.com. “Celebrating like that when I score is my way of paying tribute to Tahiti, that’s all. It’s also become my trademark.”
It is a trademark that has travelled well. Having worn the colours of Nantes, Nice, Lorient, Monaco and Nancy in that order and won the Coupe de France in 2000 and the French league title in 2001, Vahirua decided to try his luck in Greece last summer, at the age of 32.
There are no regrets about the move: “I am very happy and I’ve done absolutely the right thing in coming here. The weather in Greece is pretty similar to that of Tahiti, though I live in the worst part of the country in that respect.”
His five goals, various assists and boundless energy in the front line could well help his new club stay up in their first season back in the Greek top flight.
“Technically and tactically the level is lower than in France, but teams play to win here and games are a lot more open,” explained the Tahitian target man. “I’m still paddling though, which has helped Greece get to know my country a little better.”
As it happens, Tahiti’s global footballing profile is about to receive a major boost in any case. In winning last year’s OFC Nations Cup, the Toa Aito (Iron Warriors) booked a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, which will take place on 15-30 June.
Vahirua, who has always made his professional career more of a priority than winning caps for Tahiti, is hoping to be there: “All being well I should be part of the squad. I really hope I make it.”
The hopes of an island
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for a country like ours,” added Vahirua. “It’s a unique chance to raise the standard of our football even higher and of sport in general. A lot of people have been working towards that goal in Tahiti for many years. We’re making progress and this competition will help us make even more.
“It’s the chance to show that Tahitian football can expand beyond the islands and go even further," he continued. "You can make a living from the game if you work at it and I’d love to see that happen for Tahiti’s players. Obviously the Confederations Cup is a door that’s open to the professional world.”
It was in a cup match many years ago that Vahirua got himself noticed in France. Shortly after being spotted in a Coupe de France tie when playing for Tahitian side AS Pirae, he joined Nantes’ prestigious academy, where he soon earned the nickname “Tahiti goal”. Fifteen years later, high hopes are being invested in him as Tahiti prepare to make their debut appearance at the Festival of Champions, not that he is feeling the pressure.
“Not at all. It’s a positive pressure,” he said. “It’s the first time in the history of Tahitian football that we’ve qualified for a tournament as big as this. It goes without saying that people are expecting a lot of me, but there are 11 players in a football team and then you’ve got the substitutes too. It’s not going to be down to me whether we win or lose.”
Drawn in Group B alongside Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria, Vahirua and Tahiti are in no way deluding themselves about the task ahead: “We have to be realistic. We’re a team of amateurs, in the noble sense of the word.
"We can’t compete on the same level as these teams, but that’s all part of the learning process for us. How are you ever going to progress if you don’t take on these types of sides? This is a springboard for Tahitian football, and that’s great.”
Later in the year, on 18-28 September to be exact, Tahiti will find itself back on the international scene when it hosts the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, when the Tiki Toa will have another opportunity to take on the world.
“The team is a bunch of friends,” said Vahirua, wrapping up our chat. “I played with most of them when I was a youngster, and that’s how we all start out in Tahiti. Naea Bennett, the captain of the team, is my first cousin. I’ve asked him to keep a place for me in the team. If I’m available, then why not?”