In this age of world football television coverage and instant internet connection, it’s unusual to have a team of unknown quantity at a major competition, but that’s exactly how Tahiti appear to many football fans looking forward to this month’s Confederations Cup in Brazil.
In fairness, it’s hardly surprising that few are familiar with either Tahiti or their players – this is the first time Toa Aito have qualified for a major tournament; they have never reached the World Cup finals, and last year’s Oceania Nations Cup victory – which earned Tahiti a place at the Confederations Cup – was the first time the country has come out on top in their region.
The turnaround in fortunes has been incredibly quick: historically an also-ran in the Oceania Confederation, as recently as 2007 Tahiti failed to even qualify for the Nations Cup, faring only marginally better than minnows Tuvalu and the Cook Islands in the qualification process. The team’s future looked bleak, and even the most optimistic of Tahitians would have ruled out any major success in the foreseeable future. Credit must be given to the Fédération Tahitienne de Football, who recognised the need for change and have managed an impressively rapid rate of improvement.
Their efforts culminated in the hiring of Eddy Etaeta, an ex-Tahiti international as a player, as the country’s new manager in 2010. Etaeta, only 43 himself, has successfully blooded a new generation of youngsters – over half of the squad for the Confederations Cup are aged 24 and under. Many of these fresh faces came from the national under-20 team, which had reached the U-20 World Cup for the first time in Tahiti’s history in 2009.
Inevitably, for a nation of around 250,000, Etaeta’s squad is bereft of the kind of big names that Tahiti’s Group B rivals Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria possess, but the coach has been able to make one quality addition to his almost exclusively locally-based group. AS Nancy striker Marama Vahirua, born in the Tahitian capital Papeete, has finally linked up with his compatriots, having spent most of his career in France. Vahirua is set to make his international debut at the unusually ripe age of 33, but his vast experience at Ligue 1 level should prove beneficial for a Tahiti squad lacking in knowledge of European playing styles.
His playing CV may be significantly more impressive than his team-mates’, but Etaeta insists there will be no favourable treatment in the dressing room: “We don’t have any key players. We have always put the spotlight on the bigger picture: the state of mind and being a group. For me, the star is the whole team.” Nevertheless, Vahirua looks like the side’s best bet for a goal at the finals.
A cursory glance at the remainder of Etaeta’s squad list returns the oddity of no fewer than four players with the same surname: brothers Alvin, Lorenzo and Jonathan Tehau will all be competing for midfield places, while their cousin Teaonui has recently made the breakthrough to the senior side as a promising forward. Says Alvin, “I’m very proud to play in the national team with my family. We are a unit…I think it helps the team as a whole.”
Captain Nicholas Vallar also boasts professional experience, having spent three years at Montpellier; after spells at lower-league clubs in France and Portugal, the 29-year-old returned home in 2009 to play for AS Dragon, Tahiti’s current league champions. Striker Steevy Chong-Hue, of mixed Chinese-Tahitian heritage, similarly made the jump to Europe – joining Belgium’s BX Brussels, recently taken over by Vincent Kompany – before re-signing for AS Dragon.
With the 2012 Nations Cup final Tahiti’s last competitive fixture, Etaeta set up a game in February of this year against Australian outfit Sydney FC, which the A-League franchise comfortably won 4-0. A more recent tour of Chile yielded wins over Universidad de Chile’s under-20 team and second tier Deportes Magallanes, but in their last warm-up game Tahiti were thrashed 7-0 by Chile’s under-20 side.
Results haven’t exactly been reassuring ahead of the country’s biggest test yet, then, and even the two victories are of doubtful use: the gulf in class between the Chilean second division and world champions Spain is wider than Etaeta’s grin will be if Tahiti pull off an upset or two later this month. However, the Fédération Tahitienne de Football have defended the decision to play low-key opposition, citing the need to “build confidence for the future”. Etaeta concurs: “We’re not in denial – we know 8-10 weeks of professional training isn’t going to make up for the 10 years of professionalism that separates us from Spain or Uruguay.”
However, the mild confidence-building of those wins will surely have been ruined by the 7-0 hammering which followed. Etaeta will have a huge job on his hands if he is to convince his players they are capable of taking on Xavi, Iniesta and co, and the flight to Brazil the day after the under-20 defeat was no doubt in more sombre spirits than is healthy given the size of the task ahead.
And the team’s spirit will have been further damaged by Tahiti’s disastrous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign which ended in elimination in March – with Toa Aito having just one win and two goals to their name after six games. Upsets in Brazil, then, are unlikely, but at least Etaeta is realistic in his targets for the upcoming tournament: “to not concede any goals in a half would be impressive in itself. But above all, to score a goal would be a huge achievement.” That seems reasonable, and you have to hope the minnows have a Hollywood ending to a story no-one could have dreamt up a year ago.