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Flinder Boyd | June 19, 2013

'Christmas in June'

A small island finally gets its big moment on the world soccer stage

Located just a few miles uphill from the seaside capital Papeete lies the country's national soccer team’s training ground. Nestled under the misty mountain Orohena are the Tahitians sparse facilities, the players who train here have just made history by becoming the first amateur side to every qualify for a major intercontinental FIFA tournament by virtue of winning last summer's Oceanic region tournament, the OFC Nations cup.

When I arrived in Tahiti a few weeks ago, after a morning practice, three or four players were dancing around in their towels to the Samba music blaring from the loud speakers just inside their locker room, a makeshift rectangular structure which looks more like a country outhouse than the changing room of one of the continental champions.

"If we’re going to Brazil we have to begin to adapt to the culture."

"If we’re going to Brazil we have to begin to adapt to the culture," coach Eddy Etaeta, a soft-spoken former player who earned 13 caps with the national team in the 80’s says over the jarring beat.

"It will be Christmas in June for us," he tells me, "but we can’t be afraid."

A few hours later, he calls a team meeting, and turns on his computer, inside the newly built office space which was paid for when Tahiti qualified for the Confederations Cup and were guaranteed $1.8 million. A projector is put in place and an image of Cesc Fabregas, one of the trio of Spanish midfield stars, flickers against the beige wall.

"Get your picture with him now," the coach demands, hints of smile begin to form at the edge of his mouth. "I don’t want anyone to bring their autograph book to Brazil."

On Thursday afternoon, Tahiti, ranked 139th in the world, will dive head first into the lion’s den against arguably the greatest team in soccer history, two-time defending European champion and World Cup holder Spain, in arguably the most iconic stadium in the world, the Maracaña in Rio de Janeiro.

For any athlete, or any of us for that matter, we yearn either through luck or skill or both to have a chance to do something amazing for once in our monotonous lives. We hope, maybe, that a talent scout spots us on the street and hands us a contract, or for that giant $1 million clearinghouse check to be delivered to our house. Or, if you’re Tahiti, you hope for Australia to pull out of the Oceania group in 2006, for heavy-favorite New Zealand to be defeated by New Caledonia in the semi-finals and for Steevy Chong Hue, who had only scored one meaningless goal all tournament, to chest the ball down perfectly and connect on the strike of his life in the OFC Nations cup final against New Caledonia.

The Tahitians, of course, were never meant to be in the Confederations Cup. In fact, before Jonathan Tehau historic goal in their 6-1 loss to Nigeria on Monday, their only two moments in the international spotlight were near disasters.

In the 2004 Olympics, Tahiti were awarded their first referee representative in a major tournament for the match between Tunisia and Serbia. Charles Ariiotima then proceeded to hilariously and spectacularly bomb. During the game, after awarding Tunisia a penalty which was taken then converted, he ordered it to be retaken, then retaken again, and then again, until it was taken six consecutive times for various infractions, real or imagined. His, and his islands’ only saving grace, I was told, was that a newspaper in Serbia mistakenly printed his home country as "Haiti" rather than "Tahiti."

Then in the 2009 FIFA under-21 World Cup, Tahiti, lost three games to nearly identical opponents that they face this week in the Confederations Cup, by a combined 21-0.

Last summer, it was as if "everything just fell into place, it was magical," back-up goaltender Mikael Roche said. Tahiti became the first team other than Australia or New Zealand to win the OFC cup tournament, largely due to the Tehau brothers, twins Lorenzo and Alvin and older brother Jonathan were in the form of their life scoring 15 of Tahiti’s 20 goals in the tournament.

Yet after the team won the OFC, and returned to Tahiti, they weren’t given a hero’s welcome, or any welcome at all. When goal-scoring star Chong Hue returned to his job at the local mobile phone store the next week his boss didn’t even know why he took off work.

Tahiti2_medium

Hardly anyone knew Tahiti had qualified for the Confederations Cup.

In fact, when I talked to people on the streets a few weeks ago, hardly anyone knew Tahiti had qualified for the Confederations Cup, and they couldn’t name a single player on the team except 33-year-old Marama Vahirua, a diminutive playmaking midfielder and the most decorated Tahitian player of all-time. Earlier in his career, Vahirua was one of the top midfielders in the French league, winning the French Ligue 1 title with Nantes in 2001. (Although players and coaches alike tell me the greatest to ever play was Erroll Bennett, who averaged 40 goals in 20-game seasons on the island in the 80’s -- "the Pele of Tahiti").

Perhaps it’s understandable that there isn’t much international soccer history in Tahiti. Only five players in the country of 170,000 people have ever played professionally, and only Vahirua has played at a high level. It's partly due to a lack of talent and coaching but even, if given the opportunity, players generally don’t leave the island, if they do it will only be for a few months then they’ll return.

Mikael Roche, who had a try-out with the AS Monaco youth team early in his career, explained to me why it was so difficult for Tahitians to play outside of the region. "One of the reasons I didn’t succeed was because I was living in a fairy tale. When you’re young your afraid of what you don’t know. I reached another country and the mentality was different, the relationships different," he said. "In Europe, you learn you have to walk on the head of someone to reach your goal. In Tahiti we believe you reach your goal because you deserve it."

Tahitians are also extremely close to their families, often living with their parents until they’re married and leaving can prove difficult. In traditional Tahitian culture the placenta and umbilical cord are buried into the ground during an elaborate ceremony signifying the tangible connection of the child with his or her native land.

The top players therefore hone their skills at home as part-time players. The rest of the time they’re focusing on trying to make ends meet. More than a third of the team is unemployed, and more work only a few days a week.

More than a third of the team is unemployed, and more work only a few days a week.

After walking through the capital it’s evident that the chasm between the picturesque postcard of Tahiti and the everyday reality of the city life is immense. Poverty and homelessness is difficult to hide, with nearly three times as many people below the poverty line as big brother France. Without any major natural resources, the country imports nearly all its food and survives on the money handed to them from France and on the once thriving tourist industry, which has struggled to recover from the world economic crisis.

In large part, a lot of the current issues in Tahiti can be traced to the 30 years of covert nuclear bomb testing France performed on the Tuamotus group of Tahitian islands. The French government -- in return for letting off over 170 bombs at nearly the same force as Hiroshima -- paid the local government $180 million a year under the table. When news finally broke, residents rioted for 36 hours and eventually the testing stopped in 1996, so to however, did much of the French governmental aid. Besides the astounding cancer rates (one island of Tureia buried 1/3 of its adult population from cancer between 1997 and 2002) the islands have been trying to recover psychologically ever since and, as novelist Chantal Spitz writes, Tahitians have slowly become immune to feeling.

The history between France and Tahiti is complex. If asked, many Tahitians would say they feel nearly as French as they feel Tahitian and have, in large numbers, shunned any push by former president Oscar Temaru toward full independence.

Tahitian identity, however, is expressed in other ways, particularly through sports,

Va’a, or canoeing is the national sport. "Va’a is in our blood," Captain Nico Vallar explains.

The top athletes in Va’a and surfing are national heroes and major races attract attention in a way that soccer, brought over by the colonizers, never could. When the local team AS Dragon won the soccer league championship this past year, they lifted the trophy in front of no more than 300 of their own fans. Things are changing in Tahiti, however. Soccer is now by far the largest participatory sport, particularly among the youth, who often walk around Papeete dressed in Fabregas’ Barcelona jersey.

"We want to surprise the world ...
in a good way."

So on Thursday, when Nico Vallar, an unemployed 29-year-old who lives in his parents' basement, lines up across from Iker Casillas, the Spanish captain who makes nearly $10 million dollars a year and lives in a mansion in the Madrid suburbs, he won’t have any illusions that this is a David and Goliath story. He knows, like all of us, if Tahiti played Spain 1000 times, they’d lose 1000 times.

"We can’t be what we aren’t," he says. "But we want to surprise the world … in a good way."

Before the ball is kicked off, the Tahitians will look up at buzzing, sold-out crowd, miles away from the tiny picturesque islands they call home and no doubt wonder how they ever got a chance to play the game of their dreams. Whatever sense of feelings have been lost through the constraints of a colonial history and past soccer failures will all be forgotten, because if the Tahitians ever wanted to feel, really feel, with their heart racing and the world looking down at them, lined up next to one greatest teams that ever played, under the lights of the most famous stadium in the world, this is their chance.

About the Author

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Flinder Boyd is a former professional basketball player who played 10 years in Europe. He holds degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of London, Queen Mary and his writing has appeared in The Classical, Sports on Earth and BBC online among others. He can be found at iwishiwasalittlebittaller.org and @FlinderBoyd. He currently lives in New York.

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