From paradise to the Pyramids

From the days of the earliest French settlers through its romanticised depictions in the paintings of Paul Gauguin and Jacques Boullaire, or in the melancholic songs of Jacques Brel, the French Polynesian island of Tahiti has long evoked - in European minds at least - the mythical trappings of a tropical paradise. Until now there has been little room for football in this idyll, but the island's shock qualification for this month's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt may help change perceptions, and demonstrate that even in "Heaven on Earth" there is a place for the beautiful game.

A huge white cross stands sentinel on the hilltop overlooking the FIFA Goal project grounds in the lush Titioro Valley, providing a constant source of inspiration for Tahiti Nui (as the team are known locally) as they prepare to create a miracle of their own at this month's U-20 World Cup.

Faith means a lot to the young Tahitians - before each match they gather together in the dressing room in song, and in prayer. But while faith is important, so too is belief: namely, the belief that they can surprise the world despite being rank outsiders among the 24 teams who will do battle in Egypt. Creating that belief has been the priority of their passionate coach, Lionel Charbonnier, and as the countdown begins to their opening match in Cairo, his infectious enthusiasm seems to be paying off.

Having already made history by becoming the first archipelago nation from Oceania to reach a FIFA under-age world championship, the amateurs from French Polynesia are convinced they can make history again. Tahiti have been drawn against three of the toughest teams in the tournament - European heavyweights Spain, perennial challengers Nigeria, and fellow tournament debutants Venezuela, who booked their place by eliminating six-time U-20 world champions Argentina during the qualifiers.

Charbonnier, 42, knows what it takes to reach the top - he was third-choice goalkeeper when France famously won the FIFA World Cup™ on home soil in 1998. But while the former Auxerre custodian does not expect to become a world champion coach just yet, he can draw some parallels to those unforgettable days with Les Bleus.

I want my players to be happy, and hopefully we can also make the people of Tahiti happy.
Lionel Charbonnier, Tahiti coach.

The perennial understudy, first to Bernard Lama, and then to Fabien Barthez, Charbonnier admits he felt awkward sharing the glory of the open-top bus ride down the Champs Elysees the day after France won the World Cup. "I wasn't sure whether I really deserved to be there," he recalls. "But then being on the bus, and seeing all the people, it made me understand how much joy football can give. From that day, I decided I would always try and use football to bring happiness. So I want my players to be happy, and hopefully we can also make the people of Tahiti happy."

In the happiness stakes, Charbonnier leads by example. In Tahiti, the main island among the five archipelagos composing French Polynesia, the smiling, laidback, approach of the locals has a name. It is called "fiu". Sometimes it is confused with laziness. Even before he touched down in Papeete, Charbonnier - helped by some timely advice from his former Auxerre team-mate and Tahiti's most decorated player, Pascal Vahirua - was determined not to make that mistake. "The Tahitian boys are willing to work hard, but you must know how to treat them," he said.

Thinking Brazilian
"From almost the first week I realised I couldn't think like a Frenchman. I had to think more like a Brazilian. The way they think, they way they look, the weather, the environment, it's almost the same as Brazil. They like to enjoy their work. So you must respect their culture if you want the best from them."

Charbonnier does his best to blend in. Each morning, he rides his black Vespa to the FIFA Goal project training grounds adjacent to the national stadium, Stade Pater, usually arriving in his shorts and T-shirt before sharing a joke and a laugh with his players. There are no pretences about the affable Frenchman. But that does not mean he has lowered his standards. Far from it.

After completing his UEFA Pro Licence, Charbonnier served his coaching apprenticeship with amateur French clubs Sens and Stade Poitiers, taking the latter to three promotions in three seasons. But club politics eventually exhausted him and he was taking a break from football - training horses and painting landscapes and abstracts - when Oceania Football Confederation President and former Tahitian international Reynald Temarii came calling in late 2007.

It was an unusual offer - to travel to the other side of the world to develop the youth teams of a nation which has historically struggled in Oceania, let alone on a bigger stage. But something in the size of the challenge stirred Charbonnier's competitive nature.

Every day they give the best of themselves. Every day, they are better players. If they are asked to go through the wall, they will go.
Charbonnier on his players.

"When I arrived, everybody said ‘why did you come?' I said, 'to go to the World Cup'. They said 'you're crazy'. Maybe, maybe I am. But you must be a little bit crazy in your life. Of course it was a big, big, gamble, but I already knew some things about Tahitian players because of Pascal (Vahirua), so I knew there were possibilities."

Those possibilities became a reality when Tahiti edged out New Caledonia to win the Oceania qualifiers late last year. It was history by design, not accident. One of Charbonnier's first demands to Temarii was for his under-20s to be allowed to compete in the local first division in order to gain much-needed experience, fitness, and competition.

Initially, the other clubs resisted, refusing to release their players, but Temarii put his foot down and backed his new coach. When Tahiti celebrated their unprecedented success last December, all opposition to the experiment evaporated. This year Tahiti Nui again competed in the recently-concluded ten-team Championnat, further cementing a level of cohesion and camaraderie that can be hard to foster among national teams whose players are more used to meeting up for short spells months apart.

"We're not a national team, we're a club team, and this is our big advantage," Charbonnier said. "I work with these players every day, and I can see the difference it makes. Every day they give the best of themselves. Every day, they are better players. If they are asked to go through the wall, they will go. They are becoming professional in their minds, and for me it is wonderful to see."

Potential pros
Being professional is not only a state of mind for some of the players, it is also an objective. Charbonnier believes "two or three" of his players are good enough to earn contracts in Europe, most probably France, which has traditionally had first call on Tahitian talent. Vahirua's younger cousin, Marama, currently plays for Ligue 1 club Lorient in Brittany, while Temarii spent two seasons with Nantes during the 1980s and a former Tahitian national team captain, Jean-Loup Rousseau, had spells with Auxerre and Metz in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most likely candidate to be the next Tahitian in the French leagues is 19-year-old striker Alvin Tehau, who scored a goal in last year's decisive win over Fiji, having previously turned down a contract offer during a trial with Ajaccio two years ago. Tehau is ready to try again, and like the rest of his team-mates knows the FIFA U-20 World Cup is a window of opportunity.

"The coach has told us there will be people watching, so maybe they will choose some of us," Tehau said. "This is a big opportunity, not just for me, but for all of us. My dream is to score a goal, maybe against Spain, but my priority is to help the team go through to the second round. We are not scared of the other teams, of the big players. Playing against them can help us improve, and progress. We have been together for more than a year, so we are like brothers, there is a good feeling between us. Of course it is a big step to play in the World Cup, but we believe we can spring a surprise."

We will not lose any matches 10-0, no chance. I am sure about that. The important thing is not to be afraid. If they are afraid when they go on the pitch, they are finished. 
Charbonnier on the fear factor.

So, too, does Charbonnier, who has fine-tuned his squad with a punishing training camp in France, which has included nine matches in the last five weeks. Tahiti will arrive in Egypt fit, focused, and organised. And the minnows are ready as they will ever be.

"Their mentality, it must be very strong," said Charbonnier. "Every day, we are speaking about that. We know it will be very difficult for us. We are in the group of death, so they (opponents) are all happy to play against Tahiti. But we will not lose any matches 10-0, no chance. I am sure about that. The important thing is not to be afraid. If they are afraid when they go on the pitch, they are finished. But if they are not afraid, then we can do something very good, maybe a draw. The best thing for me is they give all their heart, they do their best. We must be warriors, that is what I have told them. After that, we wait and see."

Football's dilemma in Tahiti is to motivate talented players to aim higher and to work towards a professional career. With a thriving tourism industry, and generous subsidies from France for the administration, employment is relatively easy to find in Papeete - which can make the option of staying home and playing football as a hobby seem a less risky alternative.

"Some of these boys have talent, and some of them might get a professional contract, if not in Europe, then hopefully in Australia, where the A-League is now a professional competition," former Tahiti captain Jean-Loup Rousseau told FIFA World. "They have sacrificed a lot in the last 18 months, and it would be a pity to see it go to waste."

All but four of Charbonnier's squad members are students, and those who are not have been given time off by their employers to commit to Charbonnier's rigorous training programme. "It is an easy lifestyle here in Tahiti, so you have to push them sometimes, but I couldn't be happier with the sacrifice they have given me," said Charbonnier.

"We gave the team a few weeks off after the Championnat, and one guy came back ten kilos heavier. He has talent, but of course he must have fitness too. But look at him. See how hard he is working. This is the attitude I like to see."

"What these players need is a goal, and that should be trying to qualify for the World Cup," said Rousseau. "But that all depends on the federation, because you need to keep this group together."