CBC Sports - FIFA Confederations Cup

FIFA Confederations CupTiny Tahiti takes on soccer's giants

Posted: Friday, June 7, 2013 | 09:48 AM

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Tahiti players take a break during an away friendly against Sydney FC in February. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images) Tahiti players take a break during an away friendly against Sydney FC in February. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

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Not quite a fifth the size of Prince Edward Island, Tahiti is home to a population of approximately 200,000. Twenty-three of them are in Brazil to compete at the FIFA Confederations Cup against some of the world's most powerful soccer nations.
Football is the one truly global sport.

It is played in just about every country on the planet. For generations, Europe and South America have been the sport's power bases but slowly the game has spread to even the most remote regions.

It doesn't get much more remote than Tahiti. A tiny, volcanic island in the South Pacific, Tahiti is more than 4,000 kilometres from the nearest landmass. A flight lasting more than five hours gets you from Tahiti's capital, Papeete, to Auckland, New Zealand.

Not quite a fifth the size of Prince Edward Island, Tahiti is home to a population of approximately 200,000 inhabitants. Twenty-three of them are in Brazil to compete at the FIFA Confederations Cup, starting with Monday's game against Nigeria (CBCSports.ca, 2:45 p.m. ET).

"Compete" is perhaps too strong a word. "Participate" would be more accurate. It is the first time Tahiti has qualified for a senior FIFA tournament, and its debut could be memorable for all the wrong reasons. There is every reason to expect Tahiti will be out of its depth and will lose all its round-robin games heavily.


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Tahiti, though, has earned its berth in Brazil and its players are determined to make the most of the once-in-a-lifetime experience. The international breakthrough finally arrived in June 2012 when Tahiti captured the OFC Nations Cup to become champions of Oceania and earn a spot in the Confederations Cup.

Previously the exclusive preserve of Australia (before it moved to the Asian Confederation in 2006) and New Zealand, there is finally a new name on the OFC Nations Cup trophy. Tahiti is not an overnight success story. Its OFC triumph and subsequent qualification for the Confederations Cup has been the result of a decade-long rebuild by the Tahiti Football Federation.

That patient makeover is about to be rewarded. In addition to global exposure, Tahiti will pocket a cool $1.7 million, even if it loses all its group games in Brazil. For a country with limited soccer resources and an extremely tight budget, FIFA's prize money is not to be sniffed at.

The vast majority of its players are semi-professionals -- all except one. Marama Vahirua is a well-known player in France, where the veteran striker has spent his entire 15-year career. A former France U-21 international, Vahirua has never been capped by the country of his birth.

That is about to change. The 33-year-old, currently playing his club soccer in Greece and a hero in his homeland, has been named to the Tahiti squad for the Confederations Cup. Vahirua has never forgotten his roots and his unique Tahitian paddle goal celebration has been a familiar sight in the French League for many years.

His experience and mere presence on the team will be a major boost to his fellow Tahitians as they prepare to tackle some of soccer's giants. Head coach Eddy Etaeta will also look to the leadership of central defender Nicholas Vallar, who captained the team to the OFC title 12 months ago.

On paper none of it will make any difference. Tahiti currently occupies a lowly 135th-place spot in the FIFA world rankings. None of its Group B rivals are outside the top 30, with Spain having held top spot for the last five years.

The Iron Warriors of Tahiti may be about to go into meltdown.

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