The past few years have seen football in Tahiti achieve many milestones, and this year’s hosting of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup will be yet another high watermark for the sprawling island nation on Oceania’s remote eastern edge. The September event will be the first ever FIFA tournament to be held in a Pacific Islands country.
Four years ago Tahiti became the first Pacific nation to reach the FIFA U-20 World Cup, while two years ago the Tiki Toa achieved further unprecedented heights by winning through to their maiden FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Italy.
Perhaps most significantly, the senior national team broke Australia and New Zealand’s four-decade hegemony on the continent. Last year’s stunning triumph has Tahiti set for an inaugural appearance at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 in June, among some of the globe’s football elite.
However, attention in Tahiti is divided as the French-speaking nation prepares to welcome the world to its golden sands. Playing the role of hosts brings a level of pressure but early indications are that Tahiti will be hugely competitive.
If pure statistics count for anything then Tahiti are well placed under coach Angelo Schirinzi. The Tiki Toa are currently on a six-match winning streak on home sand, suggesting they are not only a cohesive unit, but are well conditioned amid familiar surroundings.
Nor has the winning run been achieved against weak opposition as Tahiti firstly dispensed with former world champions France in February, and then repeated the feat in a further three-match series against 2013 qualifiers Netherlands earlier this month. France were seen off 8-3, 5-4, and 7-2, while the Dutch were overwhelmed 5-4, 8-6 and 9-3.
“We have worked hard on our combinations in training and it came together well in the final match,” said Schirinzi. “We played well of course, but also I think that the Dutch were a bit tired by the final match. We have noticed that a lot of teams who come here experience problems. The heat and fatigue can come into account.” Perhaps the most telling comment though belonged to Netherlands coach Niels Kokmeijer who described the Tahiti team as “incredibly strong”.
Tahiti will conclude their preparations for the 18-28 September tournament by competing in the OFC Championship, even though qualification is already assured as hosts. The tournament will nevertheless provide invaluable tough competition via the likes of New Caledonia and Solomon Islands, as well as provide a test event for the Papeete venue.
Tahiti have earned plaudits in recent years for their strong development on sand. Two years ago Tahiti broke Solomon Islands’ stranglehold in Oceania and qualified for Ravenna 2011. The debutants equipped themselves well despite the huge jump from continental to world stage. Indeed, Tahiti secured a historic 5-2 win over Venezuela in their opening match, before suffering defeats against Nigeria and eventual champions Russia.
Among the key players set for a second successive appearance at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup is pivot duo Teva Zaveroni and Naea Bennett. Though both could be described as veterans, the pair bring a huge amount of experience to the team, and have also featured in FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers down the years. Tiki Toa skipper Bennett, who netted once in Ravenna, could prove to be the home-grown poster-boy this September, having hit a hat-trick in the final outing against the Netherlands and bagging six goals across the three-match series.