- Tahiti have reached past two FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup finals
- Beach Soccer has enjoyed massive growth in French Polynesia over past decade
- Tahiti will face Italy, Mexico and Uruguay in group stage at Paraguay 2019
Mention Tahiti to most people and thoughts typically turn to pristine palm tree-lined beaches, the iconic sun-kissed reef that is Bora Bora or perhaps an idealised tropical lifestyle of the kind sought by Captain Bligh’s fabled 18th century mutineers. Few think of football.
Yet Tahiti have twice been just a single win away from creating one of sport’s great fairy tales. In both 2015 and 2017 the Polynesians reached the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup final. Later this month they will have an opportunity to conquer that final frontier at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Paraguay 2019.
It is an extraordinary achievement for a remote nation comprised of just 190,000 citizens on the French Polynesian mainland, where the entire current squad hail. By comparison, Brazil - their final opponents two years ago and the spiritual home of sand-based football - has a population exceeding 200 million.
Even more remarkable is that Tahiti did not reach the world stage until breakthrough qualification for Ravenna 2011. The Tiki Toa (Warrior Gods) had not even played competitive Beach Soccer until hosting the inaugural OFC Championship in 2006.
Such is the rudimentary nature of the Moorea-based pitch (pictured below) which hosted that tournament, waves lap at the back of the net during high tide. It is a beautiful image of football in the Pacific, but it also underscores how far beach soccer has come in the region.
The rise and rise of Tahiti at the Beach Soccer World Cup
2005 – Did not enter
2005-07 – Did not qualify
2008 – Did not enter
2009 – Did not qualify
2011 – Group stage
2013 – Fourth
2015 – Runners-up
2017 – Runners-up
Tahiti hosted a memorable Beach Soccer World Cup in 2013 – the only FIFA tournament to be held in an Oceanian island nation other than New Zealand. Having debuted in 2011 with a group-stage win, Tiki Toa truly came of age six years ago, reaching the semi-finals, and earning plaudits for their on-field quality and easy off-field charm.
Having reached two successive finals, can they now conquer their own sporting Everest? Long-time team focal-point and now Tiki Toa coach Naea Bennett says winning the tournament is the ultimate aim, but that the depth of competition is rapidly increasing.
“We are very happy to have reached two World Cup finals,” Bennett told FIFA.com. “The purpose now is, of course, to finally win a World Cup. We know it is very hard because the level is increasing every year."
That is one reason why Tahiti will be the first team to arrive in Paraguay on Wednesday 6 November.
“We have played five or six games since the last World Cup, which is ridiculous compared to some of the other teams. The first objective is to be part of the second round, and then everything is possible.”
Bennett’s views were echoed by Raimana Li Fung Kuee, worthy winner of the adidas Bronze Ball at Tahiti 2013, who told FIFA.com: “I don’t think we can compare our previous results [at World Cups] because the level of beach soccer has increased enormously since.”
Li Fung Kuee’s 2013 breakthrough achievement was followed by Heimanu Taiarui winning the adidas Golden Ball two years later, with Jonathan Torohia named the tournament’s best goalkeeper. All three are set to head to Paraguay, along with several other members of the Tahiti 2013 side.
Tahiti 2013 was a watershed in more ways than one. Tahiti’s beach soccer stars have since become recognisable figures in their homeland.
“We have a special place [in French Polynesian sport] ... when you travel around in (the capital) Papeete, everyone knows the team so we are a little bit famous,” says Bennett with a sheepish laugh. “It (our success) is very good for the team and the population.”
Two beach soccer leagues are now in operation, as well as a women’s competition, with six dedicated pitches dotted across Tahiti. Bennett says a band of supporters are expected to cross the Pacific and attend the World Cup in Paraguay.
“We have grown a lot since 2013 so a lot of people now know about beach soccer and are supporters of the team,” adds Bennett.
“We know that what we have achieved so far is exceptional. We also know that everyone [locally] expects Tahiti to be the winner of the World Cup, so we are working hard and preparing seriously. We are taking it humbly but we are playing and preparing like we want to win this World Cup.”