Five minutes have elapsed in the second half of Tahiti’s final match at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 and their keeper Gilbert Meriel is bracing himself to face a penalty taken by Uruguay midfielder Andres Scotti, a veteran of the Russian, Mexican and Argentinian leagues. The 26-year-old keeper, who has never received a cent for playing the game, springs to his left to push Scotti’s effort away with some style.
Seconds later, inspired by Meriel’s spectacular stop, Steevy Chong Hue sets off on a mazy run down the left flank, slaloming his way past not one, not two, but three Uruguayan defenders. Though his superb solo effort is not rewarded with a goal, he receives the ovation of his life from the fans. “Choooong Heee-uuu,” they cheer, ever so slightly mispronouncing their new hero’s name.
As that adulation showed, in losing their three games, conceding 24 goals and scoring just the once, the fearless Tahitians have won the hearts of a nation.
A week to remember
One hour later and their two stars of the evening reluctantly vacate the dressing room along with the team’s star player Marama Vahirua. They are the last to leave.
“We don’t want this to end and to have to go back to our everyday lives,” they said, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. The excitement of the occasion still showing in their voices, they reflected on what has been a magical few days in Brazil.
“It was incredible to hear all those people chanting my name,” began Chong Hue, who scored the goal against New Caledonia that booked Tahiti their place at the FIFA Confederations Cup. “That doesn’t happen to me even in Tahiti. The Brazilian fans were amazing. We identified with them straightaway because we’re like them. We don’t get paid to play and it feels a little bit like we represent them. If there’s one thing I’ll be taking away with me, it’s the affection they’ve had for us.”
Agreeing with those sentiments, his team-mate Meriel reflected on his moment of glory.
“I knew from the way he set himself up that he was going to put it that side and I dived without even thinking about it. Luckily I was able to stop it,” recalled the keeper, who, along with his colleagues, saluted the crowd after the match with Brazilian flags and a sign that read “Obrigado Brasil”. “I know that letting in eight goals sounds like a lot and that you shouldn’t be happy when you lose, but it gave us so much satisfaction to see people saluting us like that.”
A wave of optimism
“Tahiti are a tough side to play. They’re quick and they’ve got a good keeper.” That verdict from Uruguay captain Diego Lugano, one that the Recife crowd evidently shared, is a reflection of how far the Tahitians have come at Brazil 2013 and how far they can still go. Eyeing that future, both Meriel and Chong Hue hope their exploits of the last few days can lead to bigger things.
“My dream is to turn professional one day,” said the 23-year-old forward, who came close to fulfilling his hopes a year ago. “A Belgian club came in for me but there was a problem with the contract and the deal fell through.”
Meriel is also tempted by the idea of playing abroad: “I’d love to but unfortunately Tahiti is a long way from anywhere and there aren’t too many scouts or agents with their eye on us. There is talent on the island, however, and in this team, no doubt about it. We need more competitive football at international level, though, because we have to admit that we’re too naive on the pitch.”
Warming to their theme, the duo discussed the gap that separated them from their rivals at Brazil 2013, with Meriel offering his views first.
“There are differences obviously, though we did show some decent flashes of skill here and there,” said the keeper. “But then we went and let in goals that were entirely our fault. We need to keep on playing decent teams that so that we can improve our game.”
Chong Hue was even more forthright in his views: “We’re talking about the best teams in the world here. Think about it. We were out there playing against our heroes. We were at a physical and technical disadvantage but we’re going to work hard.”
Big dreams and hard work is the Tahitian recipe for success, one that is fuelling a few fantasies that could well become reality before too long.
“It would be great to be in the FIFA video game, even if we only had a half-star rating,” joked the Tahiti No13.
“Can you imagine that: them modelling our faces along with those of Messi and Ronaldo?” added his friend with the same spirit and sense of fun that has typified the dauntless Tahitians on their unforgettable adventure at Brazil 2013.