With a population of just 178,000, few would expect the Polynesian island of Tahiti to have the resources to qualify for a FIFA competition. Yet that is exactly what the minnows did when winning December 2008's Oceania U-20 Championship, thus booking a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009.
At the competition to be held between 24 September and 16 October this year, the Tahiti Nui will become the first island side to represent the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) at the finals of a ‘traditional' FIFA tournament. Under the guidance of coach Lionel Charbonnier, a former keeper at Auxerre, Rangers and Lausanne, the Tahitians have been put through their paces since early August at a training camp in France.
On the agenda at Avallon, where Charbonnier's Auxerre used to prepare for big European encounters, has been a combination of intensive training sessions and warm-up matches against higher-level opposition. "For this training camp we wanted to show the players what it's like at the top," the coach told FIFA.com. "That's why, aside from the training sessions and friendly games, we went to see Auxerre play and we will go and see a Bordeaux match."
"The players have met our expectations by 200 per cent. They're happy we treat them like professionals," said the Tahiti supremo, whose team head to Egypt on 13 September. "Some of them are still quite wide-eyed, but most of them are starting to look more serious and adopting a warrior's stare. That's the spirit that's instilled in me and I'm proud to see how my players' attitude makes them so much stronger, even though they aren't extraordinarily gifted technically."
Enticed to take up the role by the ambitious goals of the Tahiti Football Association (FTF), Charbonnier's position is more than about simple coaching. Indeed, he is often called upon to be something of an older brother and guide to the island's young talents. "I just wanted to give back what amateur football gave me," said the man himself. "I must thank the FA because people thought I was mad to come here. It was a risky move."
Helping the former custodian get the best of the players at his disposal is the experience of winning domestic trophies during both his time in French and Scottish football, as well as being an unused squad member during France's victorious 1998 FIFA World Cup™ campaign on home soil: "That personal experience is what makes the difference between a coach with a traditional background as a sports teacher and a former player. It's easier to get your players to listen when you're a World Cup winner."
Even so, Charbonnier is not optimistic about his side's chances in a Group B containing Nigeria, Spain and Venezuela: "We couldn't have imagined a worse draw. This is the Nigerian generation which were crowned U-17 world champions in 2007, when they beat Spain in the final... It goes without saying those two teams are joint favourites. I even think that the Venezuelans are better than us."
"We're determined to prove that key footballing values can help you move mountains," said the French supremo at the conclusion of the interview, before underlining the difficulty of the task ahead at Egypt 2009. "I'm not sure if we'll win a match or not, but what I can guarantee is that we'll be disciplined in every game and will give it absolutely everything we've got."