It just keeps getting better and better for Tahiti football. Appropriately enough it was the French Polynesia capital of Papeete that witnessed a slice of history and the latest chapter in a narrative that is starting to seem endless. The host nation at this year’s FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup progressed to the quarter-finals with a match to spare on Saturday, following a heart-pounding 5-3 extra-time win over USA.
Entering the OFC Nations Cup in mid-last year Tahiti were just one of several Pacific nations with high hopes, but seemingly only modest chances of success. Fast forward to the present day and Tahiti have won a maiden Oceania crown, and consequently went on to appear along some of the best nations in the world at this year’s Festival of Champions; the FIFA Confederations Cup.
Living through history
Patrick Tepa’s two late strikes against the Americans will long in the memory for the raucous capacity crowd in the purpose-built To’ato stadium in the capital, not least of all because it ensured Tahiti became the first Pacific Islands nation to reach the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament.
“We enter into the history of our country and Oceania football,” evergreen pivot Naea Bennett told FIFA.com after the match beaming with equal parts adrenalin and a sense of achievement. “It’s done, so we are very happy.”
Boasting a 15 year international career on his resume and a father, Errol, who is an icon of the national team from generations past, Bennett appreciates the significance of their achievement more than most. It is unlikely too that the sometimes sleepy Papeete has seen such a noisy crowd for a sporting event in its history. “You know when you finish a game like that and you may be tired, the heat given off by everybody’s support gives you more energy, you want to fight for them. It was very hard but I think the mentality worked for us.”
“The atmosphere was very hot, when you hear these people, the noise that they made it’s very amazing for us, we are not used to it but it makes us very happy and strong. “
Indeed, the line of players speaking to the media after the match all spoke with a common thread; that the home crowd was a massive influence. The evidence seems to back up that point of view. USA, displaying typical resilience and spirit, hauled themselves back into the contest with two late goals to force extra time. Despite losing control of the momentum, at least on the scoreboard, it was Tahiti who found the added willpower to prevail.
"To play at home makes us stronger,” said Tahiti goalkeeper Jonathan Torohia. “It increases our desire to play and win for the Polynesian people who came here to the stadium for us. We are happy for the country."
More milestones await
Spain are next up in the final group match on Monday. The victor will claim top spot in Group A with South American kings Argentina likely awaiting the loser. Despite two narrow wins Tahiti are now on a nine match unbeaten run. A rare statistic indeed given the erratic nature of the sand-based game.
“We know now that we have our qualification for the quarter finals and maybe that had stressed us, said Bennett pointing to Tahiti’s scope for improvement. “In the quarter-finals we should play free-minded.”
Saturday night in Papeete was a very rich icing on the cake for football in French Polynesia. And one would be brave to bet against the Tiki Toa adding yet another sweet layer over the coming week. In the words of goalscoring hero Tepa: "The story continues and this is going to be written in Tahiti's history.”