New Caledonia's favourite footballing son returned to the territory that set him on a pathway to superstardom for a match to celebrate his career on Saturday. A crowd of 10,000 packed into the Stade Numa Daly to pay homage to the Lifou-born Christian Karembeu, who enjoyed a glittering 18-year career that included 1998 FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO 2000 successes with France, and two UEFA Champions League titles with Real Madrid.
The game between a Les Bleus side which comprised a number of France 1998 winners and a Pacific selection, named Team Karembeu, finished 8-2 in the favour of the Europeans, with Robert Pires scoring five times, Zinedine Zidane twice, and Youri Djorkaeff also finding the target. The biggest round of applause, though, was reserved for Karembeu. After helping the French team establish a 6-0 lead, he was substituted to a thunderous eruption of sound and colour as the Stade Numa Daly crowd rose to acclaim the charismatic former midfielder.
An emotional Karembeu said getting together with his former team-mates was a special honour for him, particularly in New Caledonia. "We get together to play every now and then - it really is all about seeing each other and enjoying our company again. ," he said.
Karembeu reappeared shortly after for Team Karembeu, alongside players from New Caledonia and Oceania, to acknowledge his pacific roots.
Karembeu's focus was not just sentimental. He also took time to shine the spotlight on his Oceanian heritage. Keryn Jordan, the former South African international striker based with New Zealand club Auckland City and diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Vaughan Coveny (Wellington Phoenix), John Panu (Papua New Guinea), Gideon Omokirio (Solomon Islands) and Moise Poida (Vanuatu) all played for Team Karembeu.
"I am delighted to have Oceania players involved in my jubilee match," Karambeu told Oceaniafootball.com. "I played for France and won many medals and I am proud of the team and what we achieved together. But I am also Oceanian, born in the South Pacific, and it is logical for me to acknowledge this part of my heritage. I am very pleased to see the Oceania players included in the festivities."
Former Chelsea defender Frank Lebeouf was generous in his praise for Karembeu. "This is a great honour - France '98 getting together is good for us but also to show our support for Christian here in New Caledonia. The match is not about making money - it is to celebrate a wonderful career of a great footballer in front of his people."
Vaughn Coveny described the experience as "a memory that will last a lifetime, just an amazing experience." Coveny was one of five players selected from Oceania to partake in the celebratory match, alongside Jordan (Auckland City), Fred De Jong (New Zealand), Gideon Omokirio (Solomon Islands) and Moise Poida (Vanuatu) - and against the likes of Zidane, Pires, Bixente Lizarazu, Laurent Blanc and others.
FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter was on hand to welcome the players on to the field and show his appreciation for all Karembeu has done for football in Oceania. "Football is emotion. Today, thanks to this exceptional match, we've shared these emotions together," said Blatter.
" . I would also like to point out that the cultural program around this match was amazing."
Coveny looked the most likely to score for Team Karembeu in the first half, but the French defence still had the legs to prevent the pacy striker getting a clear run on goal. The second half opened up and goals from Robert Pires and Zinedine Zidane were met with loud roars from the Noumea fans.
Veteran New Zealand striker Fred De Jong went close with an acrobatic bicycle-kick which just zipped past the post, before Victor Zeoula finally scored for Team Karembeu. And a memorable evening was capped when Karembeu slotted home a late penalty to reduce the deficit.
I am delighted this jubilee has been organised here in New Caledonia, where Christan has his roots," said his thrilled wife Adriana. "His country is his biggest love. This event has been organised so well. It's an enormous pleasure. I cried when he entered the pitch. He really deserves this jubilee. It's huge!"
The former Nantes, Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Middlesborugh, Olympiacos, Servette and Bastia player wrapped up the night by embarking on a lap of honour to thank the crowd and his former team-mates. But the principal subject of tribute at the Stade Numa Daly was Karembeu himself, and New Caledonia - with the help of some foreign friends - paid this in fitting style.