The FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil this June will be a gathering of some of the globe’s greatest talents, all of whom have known nothing other than football in their professional lives. However Tahiti’s participation will very much provide a point-of-difference.
Tahiti’s squad is comprised entirely of amateurs, nearly all of whom ply their trade in the humble environs of the local competition on French Polynesia’s main island. Despite this, Tahiti – with their collection of office workers, labourers, school teachers and salesman – are intent on marking their mark in June despite the rarefied football atmosphere that will be Brazil 2013.
Goalkeeper Mikael Roche, like the vast majority of his team-mates must manage to combine a working life with preparing to meet the demands of facing the world’s best. “It is quite difficult, as we start each day very early and so have to wake up early, and yes, it is not physical work but still demanding,” Roche told FIFA.com. “I just have time to go home, collect my bag and go to the pitch so the timelines are quite short.”
A dream come true
Tahiti have long been one of the Pacific’s more established football nations, although recent years have provided relatively lean pickings. That all changed last June in the Solomon Islands as Tahiti shocked the continent, including reigning champions New Zealand – the only undefeated team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ – by claiming their maiden OFC Nations Cup.
Used to fending off the demands of teenage students, Roche, the national team’s long serving No1, is, as a result of that triumph, expecting to be in the firing line, quite literally, this June. It is, however, a situation that Roche or his team-mates wouldn’t swap.
“As soon as the final whistle blew (in the OFC Nations Cup final) the first thing I did was run to the other boys shouting ‘we are going to Brazil, we are going to Brazil’,” Roche says while a handful of team-mates smile at both the memory and the tall goalkeeper’s natural ability to entertain.
“You always want to go higher in football,” said Roche. “And now we are going to Brazil, the church of football, it is incredible.”
To play against the best in the world is quite simply a gift.
Roche, is far from intimidated by the prospect of facing the likes of Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria in Brazil 2013’s Group B. “It is great,” he says with an sense of anticipation. “Every weekend we switch on the TV, and we see Real Madrid and Barcelona players, so to play against the best in the world is quite simply a gift."
“Uruguay have such beautiful players like (Diego) Forlan, (Luis) Suarez and (Edinson) Cavani. And those (latter) two are maybe the best strikers in England and Italy.”
But what does Roche make about the task in store for the goalkeeper who is protecting Tahiti’s net against such goalscoring greats of the modern era? “It is going to be really, really, really, really hard work,” he says with a mixture of humour and pensiveness. “But at the same time, it is wonderful. Many people say ‘aren’t you afraid’. But no, just enjoy.”
World Cup stumble
Despite their unprecedented success in the Solomon Islands last year, Tahiti’s story has not been so successful in the intervening months. Four straight losses in the third and final stage of Oceania qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup dashed Tahiti’s hopes of a second visit to Brazil before they had barely begun.
Oceania’s representative for the intercontinental play-off will be determined later this month with only New Zealand and New Caledonia left in the running. Tahiti, meanwhile will host Solomon Islands, before a visit to Francophone rivals New Caledonia where the pair will reprise last year’s Nations Cup finale.
Roche says that the team’s special bond can help the good times return starting with next week’s visit of the Solomons to Papeete.
“We had a fighting spirit last year. Everybody was like this,” says Roche grasping his palms firmly together to indicate unity. “We knew that if the spirit wasn’t good we couldn’t reach our goals. The only way to survive in high level football is to have unity.”
Though a dead-rubber in terms of the FIFA World Cup, Roche is unequivocal in stating the importance of this month’s matches. “Every game is an important step,” he said. “Every second we have on the pitch is a second we have to build our team for Brazil. And all the guys are conscious of that.”