Tahiti unseat Pacific kings, reach Ravenna

Tahiti achieved the seemingly unthinkable by dethroning Oceania kings Solomon Islands to qualify for September’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Ravenna 2011. The Solomons had previously won all three continental titles, dating back to the inaugural competition in 2006, and have been the region's sole representative at four FIFA tournaments.

The Bilikiki, as the Solomons are known, have proven themselves more than capable of competing at the highest level, most notably recording a victory over Uruguay two years ago. The Solomons' squad was packed with experience and contained three players who have appeared in four consecutive FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups. The odds, therefore, were heavily stacked against the hosts, but in front of a buoyant crowd at the Jardin de Paofai in Papeete, the Tahitians managed to prevail 4-3 in an engrossing final. The victory was all the more significant with the Pacific Island nation set to become the first to host a FIFA tournament, when the Beach Soccer World Cup is held on the French-speaking territory in 2013.

“I can’t quite believe what has happened," said Tahiti coach Fabrice Marchand. "I just have a lot of emotion. My players were outstanding and the crowd, well what can I say, they were like our sixth player today.”

The 2011 Oceania tournament endured an unfortunate start with Vanuatu forced to withdraw on the eve of the tournament, with a cyclone ensuring aircrafts were unable to depart the nation for several days. It seemed yet further reason to instil Solomon Islands as red-hot favourites, with Vanuatu runners-up in all three previous editions of the tournament.

Vanuatu’s absence made for an abbreviated three-team tournament with Fiji, who had only featured on sand once previously at this level, comprising the third nation in the trio. The Bilikiki started in predictably ominous fashion, defeating the Fijians 9-4 with Robert Laua and Franco Ne’e leading the way scoring a hat-trick each.

I can’t quite believe what has happened. My players were outstanding and the crowd, well what can I say, they were like our sixth player today.
Fabrice Marchand, Tahiti coach

Fiji then faced the host nation in what was effectively a play-off to reach the final. The locals overcame a 3-1 deficit to score five goals in the final third and cause heartbreak for their opponents with a 6-5 scoreline. 

The group phase concluded with Solomon Islands overpowering Tahiti 4-1 just a day prior to the final. With both teams having already secured passage to the final, the result was academic, but the outcome nevertheless further underlined the scale of the task ultimately achieved by the Tahitians.

The final began with Nicholas Muri scoring in just the first minute for the reigning champions, only for the home side to send the healthy crowd on hand into ecstasy with goals from Patrick Tepa, Teiva Izal and captain Naea Bennett during the opening period. Marama Amau then provided a three-goal cushion only for a brace from James Naka, Oceania’s all-time leading beach soccer goalscorer, to make for a tense conclusion.

“Before the game we said we would have to be heroes, and I think we were today,” said Tahiti skipper Bennett, who, at 34, will finally have the chance to appear on the world stage after ten years international experience in the traditional form of the game. Tahiti now set to appear at a FIFA tournament for just the second time after the U-20 team represented Oceania at Egypt 2009.

“To lose the final is very sad for us but we will go back and improve so we make sure we are better for next year,” said Solomon Islands coach Henry Koto. “I think to have a new winner of this tournament shows beach soccer is getting more competitive in Oceania.”

The Bilikiki can take some solace with Naka named best player and sharing the Golden Boot with team-mate Robert Laua and Fiji’s Ratu Josevata Dugucagi. Tahiti goalkeeper Jonathan Torohia was deemed the best goalkeeper, while third placed Fiji picked up the Fair Play Award.