Lionel Charbonnier knows what it is like to take part in a global showpiece event. As third-choice goalkeeper for the victorious hosts at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, the former Auxerre, Rangers and FC Sion keeper experienced first-hand the drama of the world's greatest football show. Now, ten years on, and in a very different environment, Charbonnier has earned himself the chance to take on the world in a different capacity.
As coach of host nation Tahiti going into the Oceania U-20 Championship in December, Charbonnier was confident, but wary. No Oceania island nation had ever qualified for a FIFA field football event, and New Zealand were, understandably, clear favourites to make it through to Egypt 2009. After all, their senior side had advanced to an Asian playoff for South Africa 2010, their U-23 team had secured Oceania's Olympic berth earlier in the year, and their women's sides had recently acquitted themselves excellently in the FIFA U-17 and U-20 Women's World Cups.
It looked like being business as usual when the Kiwis, under Stu Jacobs, brushed aside Fiji 3-0 in their opening fixture, while the hosts could only draw 0-0 with their Francophone neighbours New Caledonia. Yet the defining match of the competition was to be the encounter between the hosts and the favourites on the second matchday.
New Zealand started well enough, with Wellington Phoenix striker Costa Barbarouses putting the Kiwi youngsters in front after 23 minutes. But just before half-time, a glimmer of hope for Charbonnier's men: New Zealand midfielder Adam McGeorge was shown a straight red card.
On 66 minutes, Garry Rochette brought the hosts level with a breathtaking goal, a low 30-yard missile that fizzed into the top corner. Tahiti had their tails up, and Ariihau Teriitau sparked wild celebrations by bundling home the winner from a corner in the 89th minute. Charbonnier dedicated the victory to "the team's biggest fan", the 23-year-old sister of squad member Stephane Faatiarau, who had passed away only two days before the start of the event.
The final matchday was tense. New Caledonia had beaten Fiji 3-0, and topped the standings on goal difference from the hosts. To progress to Egypt, Tahiti would have to beat Fiji while hoping that the Caledonians would slip up against a demoralized New Zealand.
With the matches taking place concurrently, Tahiti started off well enough, going into the lead after ten minutes. Yet New Caledonia took the lead against New Zealand as well, and Charbonnier, keeping track of the score at the Stade Paea, was left with nerves jangling. New Zealand equalized, New Caledonia went into the lead once more...and finally the Kiwis secured a 2-2 draw by equalizing in the 73rd minute. In the meantime, Tahiti had put another goal past Fiji, without reply. The hosts were through!
"Winning the championship is incredible, both for us and the people of Tahiti, who can now be confident in the quality of our youth players," Charbonnier said. "We were ranked at 187 in the latest FIFA ranking and now we have qualified with the 20 best teams in the world for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. I am so proud of the team."
Charbonnier partly ascribes his team's success to their innovative participation in Tahiti's national league. "It's the first time an age group team has played in the competition, and we plan on playing to the end and getting good experience. We have a lot to learn from playing with these senior teams."
New Zealand's Stu Jacobs, meanwhile, was left marvelling at the progress made by the two Francophone nations. "It's a wake-up call for this group and perhaps the organization too," Jacobs observed. "You look at Tahiti and New Caledonia and they are both very good technically and have tremendous pace. They are now very formidable sides who have been playing together for a long time. We can't take anything for granted."