Another year on the football calendar has gone with numerous headline-grabbing highlights across the global. In Oceania, however, the past 12 months will be remembered in the years to come as a watershed moment for football in the Pacific, with Tahiti leading the charge.
With a significant French influence, the remote nation at the far eastern end of the Oceania Football Confederation map – located nearly halfway between New Zealand and South America – boasts a long football history dating back several decades. In continental terms, only Fiji of the islands nations, has a longer FIFA World Cup™ history than Tahiti’s which extends to 1990.
It is perhaps appropriate that it was Tahiti that led the way by achieving two massive and previously unattainable milestones for Oceania within a matter of months. The French Polynesians firstly appeared at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 in June, where they became the first Pacific Islands nations to do so in the 21-year history of the event. Just three months later Tahiti were the first OFC nation – aside from New Zealand and former member Australia – to host a global event, with the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup staged to widespread acclaim.
*Brazil odyssey *
The journey to Brazil 2013 commenced a year earlier as Tahiti broke new ground by winning the OFC Nations Cup, ending New Zealand and Australia’s hegemony. The positive effect from Steevy Chong Hue’s tenth-minute winner in the final against Francophone rivals New Caledonia will continue to echo around Tahiti and the rest of the continent for years to come.
As perhaps expected Tahiti suffered three heavy defeats against Nigeria, Spain and Uruguay in Brazil. The Toa Aito, however brought a freshness to the tournament fielding, as they did, an all-amateur line-up, aside from European-based Marama Vahirua.
Despite the on-field disparity, Tahiti played with typical Polynesian verve and strength of character. They were rewarded with a goal from Jonathan Tehau in the opener against Nigeria in another moment that will live long in the annals of Tahitian football. The idea of scoring a goal at the ‘Festival of Champions’ would have seemed outlandish just a year earlier, and the team duly celebrated with unbridled joy and a synchronised impersonation of va’a; Polynesia’s traditional canoe-style sport.
The Brazilian crowds responded with warmth to Tahiti’s whole-hearted showings and the feelings were reciprocated in what proved to be one of football’s feel-good stories of 2013. “It was incredible to hear all those people chanting my name, that doesn’t happen to me even in Tahiti,” said Chong Hue, who hails from the island Raiatea – a remote landmass even by Tahitian standards – and whose presence at the tournament provided a metaphor for football’s global reach.
*New level for New World *
Tahiti had proved their value on the pitch, and within a matter of months the French Polynesians also demonstrated their organisational ability off it. Fifteen other nations arrived were welcomed to Tahiti’s idyllic shores and it is hard to envisage that anyone left without a positive impression. Never before had French Polynesia hosted such a far-reaching and significant global sporting event, making Tahiti 2013 a milestone that transcended sporting boundaries for the nation.
FIFA Tournament Director and Vice-President of Beach Soccer Worldwide, Joan Cusco described the event as being: “as successful as we could ever have dreamed. We planned for a special event and we can say it exceeded expectations.”
On the field there were new high watermarks for Tahiti as the host nation progressed to the semi-finals playing with trademark flair and vitality. They stunned South American champions Argentina with an outrageous 6-1 quarter-final scoreline, and were within minutes of a remarkable berth in the final only for world champions Russia to eventually prevail.
Solomon Islands also dazzled and were in touching of making it a unique Oceania double in the knockout stage falling narrowly short. Meanwhile, Tahiti’s Raimana Li Fung Kuee collected the adidas Bronze Ball in yet another new high for Pacific football.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke added his support to the success that was Tahiti 2013: “This is the first time in the Pacific Region that a World Cup has been organised and we believe that the transformation has reached such a level that we will be able to organise other FIFA events in the region.”
It is said every journey begins with a small step. And Oceania’s football voyage, thanks to Tahiti’s significant contribution in 2013, has gathered significant momentum.