For many decades Tahiti has been known almost exclusively as a holiday and surfing hot-spot. Now though it is the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013 that is bringing attention to this idyllic but isolated part of the world.
The Tiki Toa players have been catapulted into an unlikely level of local stardom and are now regulars in the domestic press, while their images adorn posters all over the French Polynesian capital. Locals suggest that the Beach Soccer national team stars are more famous than the grass counterparts who famously won last year’s OFC Nations Cup for the first time, and went on to make an historic appearance in June’s FIFA Confederations Cup.
A key factor in any Tahiti success is likely to be pivot Naea Bennett. “It is amazing,” Bennett told FIFA.com about the unprecedented attention as he and his Tahiti team-mates make final preparations in what is the maiden FIFA tournament held in the Pacific. “We are very happy to have this World Cup here in Tahiti and we hope to be ready for our country and our people.”
“I don’t think I’m a local star,” Bennett says with a humble smile, despite the evidence provided by a popular pre-training autograph session and his prominence on local promotional material. “We try to do our best to make our people happy. It is a good privilege for us to be in this position.”
“It is a dream for us to play in a [beach soccer] World Cup, and now it is my second time. This is really amazing we are very proud to be here at home facing the best players in the world.”
Polynesian style, Swiss precision
Tahiti have laid a solid platform for success after a taste of competing alongside the world’s best with their tournament debut two years ago in Ravenna. Now the Tiki Toa enter this historic tournament in familiar surrounds, having been further boosted by a lengthy preparation that including a victory over South American champions Argentina.
New coach Angelo Schirinzi, who achieved success at the helm of Switzerland over the past two tournaments, has instilled a new level of discipline and tactical awareness to the team. Tahiti played for two months in the Swiss domestic competition earlier this year winning both the league and cup competition. And with numerous international wins over quality opposition during the past 12 months, Tahiti’s quality is undoubted.
Dream come true
Bennett, eloquent and possessing a warm but humble demeanour, is well-travelled despite Tahiti’s remoteness. He spent two years in Hawaii studying business, two more years working on a Christian mission in New Caledonia “giving two years of my life to our Lord”, as well as providing many years service to Tahiti in various nations across two disciplines of the sport.
“When we are in town, everyone is behind us and say ‘we are with you’," Bennett says smiling at the thought. “We have never had this before with local people, and this gives us strength. It is great for us to have this opportunity before the end of our careers.”