Ligue 1 star Marama Vahirua, one of Tahiti’s most famous sons, often likes to remind French fans – via his paddling-action goal celebrations – that the most popular sport in his homeland is canoeing. The ‘va'a’ (a traditional dugout canoe), an integral part of the culture of this small but idyllic Pacific island, is not the only sporting discipline that rouses local passions. On land, at least, it is football that reigns supreme.
Increasingly, Tahiti’s footballers are also proving that they have what it takes to compete at international level. And while the Tahiti Football Association (FTF), founded in 1989, may still have a lot of work to do, it can certainly reflect with pride on what it has already achieved.
One such example can be found in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking: a year after having fallen to a lowest-ever position of 195th, Tahiti’s national team has climbed nine places in April, rising from 184th to 175th, the best performance from an Oceania representative this month.
“It proves that the hard work they’ve been putting in has paid off,” Lionel Charbonnier told FIFA.com. The former goalkeeper, who was part of France’s FIFA World Cup™ winning squad in 1998 and who coached in Tahiti between 2007 and 2009, has played a significant role in this improvement.
A man with a reputation for high standards, Charbonnier had set himself clear goals before taking up the South Pacific-based post. “I wanted to impart what I’d learned in my career, working on players’ confidence, team morale and teamwork, but most importantly, running professional training sessions every day,” he explains. “I think that I also managed to encourage people involved in the game to broaden their horizons, in terms of professional coaching methods, infrastructure and the league set-up,” he adds.
The former Auxerre and Rangers keeper coached the senior team, the U-17s and the U-20s during his two-year stint on the island. His crowning glory came with the latter age category, when a historic 2-1 victory over New Zealand helped the Tahitians qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009. “When I heard what they’d achieved, I was ecstatic. Charbonnier did a really tremendous job there,” says Pascal Vahirua, the Tahiti-born former French international.
Now a youth coach at Auxerre, the club at which he spent most of his career, Vahirua has not hidden his desire to one day follow in the footsteps of his former team-mate. “One day, I’d love to – as a kind of second career – pass on my experience to young players on the island, thereby giving something back to my homeland,” he said. The iconic left winger pulled on the red and white jersey of Tahiti just once, before departing for France, the nation he would go on to represent on 22 occasions, scoring one goal.
Balancing the demands of a career at the highest level of club football in Europe and a national side based on the other side of the planet is not an easy task, to which Marama Vahirua, cousin of Pascal and currently playing for Nancy, can attest: “The present national coach, Eddy Etaeta, called me a few weeks back to ask if I would take part in the upcoming Pacific Games football tournament in September. I agreed in principle, but I’ll have to see if my club are willing to let me leave for three whole weeks!”
It proves that the hard work they’ve been putting in has paid off.
New Zealand in their sights
The forward has also been delighted with Tahiti’s gradual rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. “It’s really great for such a tiny place to exert its identity via football,” Marama Vahirua said.
Charbonnier, meanwhile, is optimistic about the future of football on the island: “The objective now is to get closer to, and maybe even overtake, New Caledonia and New Zealand.” Moreover, the once-capped keeper believes that this momentum stems from the development of what he calls ‘diversified football’, a reference to Tahiti’s increasingly successful women’s XI, futsal team and beach soccer side.
The latter, in particular, have been on impressive form lately, obtaining a maiden qualification for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, due to be held later this year in Ravenna, Italy. “They’re perfectly suited for the sport, physically speaking,” says Charbonnier.
Secured by a surprise win over pre-match favourites Solomon Islands in the final of the qualifying tournament, this achievement also represents the ideal preparation for the Tahitians, who, in a first for the Oceania Football Confederation, are set to host the competition themselves in 2013.
“We’ll probably never be one the world’s great football nations, but just because we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t aim high,” said FTF Administrative Director Pure Nena recently. To attempt to scale these unforeseen heights, Tahiti will look to the young stars that helped announce the island’s arrival on the international stage in Egypt two years ago, such as the Tehau brothers, Lorenzo and Alvin, as well as Heimano Bourebare.
“It’s a fantastic generation of players that I’d love to see go all the way to the top of the game,” concludes Charbonnier, who, despite having moved onto new pastures, continues to keep a careful eye on the progress and performances of his former protégés.