In 2012 Tahiti created one of that year’s great fairytales by becoming continental champions, earning a ticket to the FIFA Confederations Cup in the process. Now, four years on, Tahiti finally have a chance to make their mark again in a FIFA World Cup™ cycle, but reprising their achievement may prove even harder than creating it in the first place.
Tahiti opened the third stage of OFC 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying on Monday in Papeete with a gritty 1-0 win over Solomon Islands. A lone strike from Tauhiti Keck at their Stade Pater was the difference between two well-matched sides. And with just one team progressing from the three-team, four-match group into the Oceania play-off, there is little margin for error.
Tahiti will play Solomon Islands in the return match on Sunday, before facing the region’s big improvers, Papua New Guinea, next year. The final stage is an OFC play-off, before an intercontinental match-up against a South American nation for a ticket to Russia 2018. For Oceania’s aspirants, the road to Russia is as arduous as it is convoluted.
*Tahiti’s unique challenge
*For Tahiti, their connection with the glory days of just a few short years ago has already partly evaporated. Many of the playing group have retired or are unavailable, and Ludovic Graugnard has assumed the coaching role from Eddy Etaeta. As always, a small playing pool of talent and the tyranny of distance are major hindrances to long-term growth.
Tahiti’s journey this week from one end of Oceania to the other is unimaginably hard by the standards known in most parts of the world. From their remote location halfway between New Zealand and South America, they must make three flights and cross the international dateline, effectively gaining a day, before arriving in Honiara.
Then there is haemorrhage of players. Tahiti’s undreamt of success in beach soccer – they have reached the final and semi-final of the past two World Cups – comes at a cost. The likes of Jonathan Torohia and Heiarri Tavanae have focussed on the sand-based game over recent times, while one-time national team captain and beach soccer superstar Raimana Li Fung Kuee is currently working in France making him also unavailable.
Enjoying the emotional experience is part of football.
“When you have so few players, you miss a boy like that (Raimana),” Graugnard told FIFA.com. “Three of four pretty important players have missed the call, so we will make do with young players. We integrated three to four new players, plus one U-20 in the preparation squad because I think this is really the future of the selection.
“The generation of Alvin Tehau, Steevy Chong Hue, Heimano Bourebarre, boys who are around 28, they still have a whole campaign in them and can play up to 30, 32 years. It is important to plan for succession so that there are good young players coming through. We have integrated young players into training, and I hope that in four, five, six years they will be the pillars of the team.”
*Building for the big stage *
Last June’s OFC Nations Cup, which doubled as stage two of Russia 2018 qualifying, saw Tahiti fail to defend their crown. It was, however, an unlucky group-stage exit on goal difference behind Papua New Guinea, who themselves were just a penalty shoot-out away from winning a ticket to next year’s Confederations Cup.
“I think what we did at the Nations Cup with virtually no preparation, if not zero, was more than respectable,” Graugnard said of his squad, nearly all of whom are domiciled in Tahiti. “So it proves that these players, they really have a level higher than what they usually show in the league. But the level of the championship is such that they do not need to excel, so they fall into complacency.”
Lawson Tama stadium in Honiara’s capital is widely considered the largest and most raucous of all in the Pacific, but Graugnard says next week’s experience in the Solomon Islands is one to be embraced rather than feared. “My hope is there will be a good crowd at the stadium because enjoying the emotional experience is part of football. For this to happen it needs spectators at the stadium.
“In 2012, the boys experienced playing in front of 20,000 people. On Sunday (in Honiara) we expect 18,000 people in the stadium. This is a very different experience to playing in our local league and this makes for a very rich experience for the players.”
Should the Toa Aito survive passage through Oceania’s sometimes choppy waters, they would face an unimaginably difficult task - a home and away match-up with South America’s fifth-placed side.
“Thinking about the highest level that Tahiti could achieve, it would be to play the play-off matches,” Graugnard states. “After that, one should stop dreaming, because you will play the fifth team of South America. Apart from New Zealand, who can do a feat such as it just did recently against the United States (1-1 draw), I do not see that in the Pacific today that anyone can hang on against the likes of Paraguay, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela. But it would of course be huge to play against these big football nations.”