Tahiti proved to be one of football’s fairytale stories of 2013. The Polynesian nation enjoyed historic firsts and breakthrough moments in equal measure during a single remarkable calendar year. Perhaps most famous was Tahiti’s appearance at the FIFA Confederations Cup in mid 2013. A few months later Tahiti became the first Oceania nation – other than continental kingfishers New Zealand – to host a global football tournament when the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup took place on Papeete’s sun-kissed foreshore.
The Tiki Toa (Warrior Gods) lived up to their nickname during a stirring run to the semi-finals on home sand, with courageous showings against better-known opponents. A last-four finish in a FIFA tournament was a first for a current OFC member. But there was more to come as Tahiti 2013 wrapped up with local hero Raimana Li Fung Kuee being named winner of the adidas Bronze Ball; a first such award for a Pacific Islands footballer.
Li Fung Kuee’s honour was deserved reward for Tahiti’s stunning showing which included a 6-1 quarter-final win over South American champs Argentina. The Tiki Toa even led Russia in the semi-final before the holders prevailed, while long-time sand kings Brazil were pushed to penalties in the play-off.
Reprising rare success *Tahiti’s mixture of undiluted natural flair and raw power proved a heady mix on the world stage. Now the challenge is for Tahiti to demonstrate they are no one-hit wonder, and reprise their success at this year’s event in Portugal. “I think it is going to be difficult this year because we will not have that element of surprise and all the teams are waiting for us,” Li Fung Kuee told *FIFA.com about the July tournament. “We really want to prove to everyone that we deserve our place among the best and that we weren't just lucky during the last World Cup.”
Li Fung Kuee says Portugal will be a special experience, especially for the local players. “Participating at a World Cup in your hometown in front of your family and friends is just extraordinary,” he said. “It’s something unique in a sportsman’s life. What’s more, we had an amazing competition and it was incredible to see that a small island of the Pacific could compete with big nations such as Brazil, Russia and Spain.”
Two years ago Tahiti enjoyed a lengthy preparation under renowned Swiss coach Angelo Schirinzi. And while Li Fung Kuee says the Tiki Toa are “not as prepared” this time around it would, however, be a surprise if they are not highly competitive in their third successive World Cup, having been drawn alongside Russia, Paraguay and Madagascar.
Tahiti have long enjoyed an affinity with the sand-based form of the game, hosting the first-ever Oceania Beach Soccer Championship on the island of Moorea a decade ago. And the legacy from Tahiti 2013 continues with Schirinzi back in Papeete recently to conduct a FIFA Beach Soccer coaching course, with assistance from Confederations Cup coach Eddy Etaeta and *Tiki Toa *star Tearii Labaste. Up to two dozen aspiring and current coaches – Li Fung Kuee among them – convened from all corners of French Polynesia to take practical and theoretical guidance from the highly-regarded Swiss technician.
"The coaching course was organised as part of the federation's long-term strategy for the development of Beach Soccer and is further linked to the FIFA/OFC beach soccer seminar which was held during the Beach Soccer World Cup Tahiti 2013 where the emphasis was on the creation of a long-term development plan for beach soccer within the respective Member Associations", says FIFA Beach Soccer and Futsal coordinator, Brent Rahim. "Consequently, this can help raise the technical level of the coaches and players which can create a greater opportunity for consistent participation in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup."
Sand and grass
An electrifying wide player on sand Li Fung Kuee is, like many of his team-mates, a dual international. He missed an opportunity to feature at Brazil 2013 to concentrate on the upcoming Beach Soccer World Cup. Like many of the French-speaking nation’s football community Li Fung Kuee spent some time in France learning his trade at Nantes, and has since turned out for AS Dragon and AS Pirae in the OFC Champions League.
FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers loom next year but it is on sand where the 30-year-old of Chinese and Polynesian extraction has most excelled. And Li Fung Kuee still speaks with an endearing touch of raw joy at having notched his unique slice of Oceanian football history two years ago. “I was really proud and astonished when I learned that I had won the title of the third best player of the world in 2013 because I wasn’t expecting that to happen,” he said. “This award, I also owe it to my family and friends who has always supported me and especially to my team-mates because without them I would never have received this prize.”