Throughout the history of FIFA-run competitions, rarely has a team been given longer odds of triumphing. Tahiti’s 23 resolute battlers arrived in South America with the intention of locking horns with Nigeria, Spain and Uruguay without any semblance of a track record, apart from their unexpected victory in the 2012 OFC Nations Cup, a result which qualified them for the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013.
The Toa Aito (Tahitian for ‘Iron Warriors’) had told anyone willing to listen that their ambition was to score at least one goal during the tournament. In the 54th minute of their duel with Nigeria, Jonathan Tehau accomplished that mission. The Tahitians can now focus on their upcoming battles with La Roja and La Celeste with that weight now lifted from their shoulders, as they aim to write further chapters in their remarkable tale.
Fate decided that the islanders would square off with the world champions in one of the game’s most iconic stadiums, the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. The Tahitians are accustomed to performing in front of an average crowd of 200; the attendance on Thursday is likely to be 300 times that number.
With an auditor, construction worker, teacher, student and several unemployed individuals among their ranks, the Polynesians are on the verge of achieving the dream of every football lover: taking on the FIFA World Cup™ holders in a legendary arena. FIFA.com turns the spotlight on this group of Tahitian amateurs, and their professional lives outside the game.
Marama Vahirua, a striker with Greek club Panthrakikos, is the only Tahiti player who can put ‘footballer’ as a full-time profession on his CV. Before flying to Brazil, he met up with his enthusiastic team-mates for the first time, and despite their amateur status, felt at home straight away.
“I may well be the only professional, but their mentality is the same. They’re young too, but they ask a lot of questions and are keen to improve. They’re aware that there’s an enormous gap between the football elite and them,” he said, clearly impressed with the mindset of his new colleagues.
Tehau, who dispatched Vahirua’s corner into the net with aplomb in the opening game, usually concerns himself with deliveries of a different kind. By learning to find a balance between his day job of transporting chewing gum, chocolate and other sweets and his love of football, he has been able to maintain a sense of perspective.
“As a delivery man, my working day finishes early and training sessions are always at night. I always try to make sure that there’s enough space for football in my life. But the sport is still a leisure pursuit for me – I would never put it before my job,” he explained, smiling.
Defender Teheivarii Ludivion, who engages in specialist construction work at heights, including bridge building, pylon installation and roof repair, also sympathises with this point of view.
Crowds on CD
Although he did not have the pleasure of playing in Tahiti’s Brazil 2013 debut, Mikael Roche still savoured the occasion immensely. The back-up goalkeeper is not used to being so far away from his pupils, or being under such an intense spotlight. The PE teacher enjoys practising the beautiful game with his students, but is also able to enjoy other sports.
“I don’t just do football with the kids," he said. "I have a curriculum to stick to. Football’s included, of course, but there are other things as well. The only time I’m able to train is in the evening, after work.”
Nicolas Vallar does not have the same problems finding time for football, unfortunately. The captain of the Oceania side is currently looking for work, just like eight of his squad-mates. “The economic downturn has made things a bit tough.
"I’m doing all I can to find something; we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I try to get as much pleasure out of the game as possible,” he said, perhaps secretly hoping to impress a professional club.
Roche, meanwhile, admits that he would not need convincing, confirming that everyone in the team harbours dreams of such an offer. “If a professional playing contract was put in front of me, I’d sign! But I’m sure that if the whole team could have one wish, it would be to experience moments like we had on Monday every weekend.”
National coach Eddy Etaeta is more aware than anyone of the gap that exists between his players and their professional opponents. Faced with an extraordinary challenge, he has responded with some slightly unusual methods.
To prepare his charges for the atmosphere that awaits them in the Maracana, Etaeta played CDs featuring crowd noises during training sessions. To get them used to the idea of facing top players like Xavi and Andres Iniesta, he filled the changing room with pictures of the Spanish stars. On Thursday afternoon, as his team realises a dream, he will learn how effective his approach has been.