x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Confederations Cup: Stage is set for David and Goliath match between Spain and Tahiti at Maracana

World Cup champions Spain are not taking any teams lightly while the tiny island of Tahiti are just trying to enjoy the ride, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Pedro Rodriguez, centre, scored the first goal for Spain in a 2-1 win on Sunday, and could add to his tally against Tahiti. Srdjan Suki / EPA
Pedro Rodriguez, centre, scored the first goal for Spain in a 2-1 win on Sunday, and could add to his tally against Tahiti. Srdjan Suki / EPA

Such is the size of tiny Tahiti that were the Estadio Maracana still capable of holding 200,000 spectators, as it was in 1950, it could comfortably accommodate the entire population of the French Polynesian island and still have space for another 20,000 people.

Located in the centre of the South Pacific, five hours from Auckland, eight hours from Los Angeles, 10 hours from Santiago and 12 hours from Tokyo, Tahiti could hardly be more remote. Yet having been crowned Oceania champions for the first time, last summer, they find themselves in Rio de Janeiro preparing Thursday to face Spain in the Confederations Cup.

A grander mismatch at such a high-profile tournament has likely never been seen.

Spain, crowned World Cup winners in 2010 and champions of Europe two years later, are the No 1 team in Fifa's world rankings. They are undefeated in 23 consecutive games and while beating Uruguay 2-1 on Sunday played the kind of football people could write poetry about.

In contrast, Tahiti: ranked 138th in the world and with only one professional player, Marama Vahirua, a 33-year-old centre forward who spent last season on loan at Greek club Panthrakikos. Of the 23-man squad that coach Eddy Etaeta has brought with him to South America, nine are unemployed. The others are teachers, lorry drivers, delivery drivers and accountants. The joke is the accountants could come in handy by the end of the match.

The teams will meet this evening at the Maracana, a stadium so steeped in history that simply saying the name can bring goose bumps to the skin of Brazilians. Opened in 1950 in time for the World Cup, it hosted the final between the home nation and Uruguay. The official attendance was 199,854 and it is widely believed to have been a conservative figure. If its walls could talk, they might tell stories of Pele, Garrincha, Tostao, Zico, Romario, Ronaldo.

Redeveloped at a cost of Dh1.85 billion the Maracana will host the World Cup final again in 2014, albeit with a decreased capacity of 78,000. Tahiti will not be there; Spain might. Resultantly, Thursday is, for the Pacific Islanders at least, the moment that dreams are made of.

"We'll have to try not to concede too many goals, try not to play badly and try to enjoy playing against these players who we see on TV all the time." said Jonathan Tehau, the scorer of Tahiti's goal, potentially the competitive highlight of their tournament, in their 6-1 defeat to Nigeria on Monday.

Eddy Etaeta, his country's otherwise unemployed, part-time coach, is no stranger to a one-sided match, having recently lost 7-0 to Chile's Under 20 team. Yet he also experienced the thrill of beating a team by a baseball score, too – Tahiti defeated Samoa 10-1 at the OFC Nations Cup last year. Yet Etaeta is banking on his Spanish opponents showing mercy.

"Spain are not interested in finishing the game at 10-0," he said. "They are very respectful and they respect the small teams. I do not think we will lose by a historic score line."

He has a point. Since winning the World Cup, Vicente del Bosque's team have been dragged all over the world playing in lucrative exhibition matches. The schedule has lined them up against such footballing behemoths as Haiti, Panama and Puerto Rico in the past 12 months.

However, while they defeated Panama 5-1, they managed only 2-1 victories over the other two. And, for the record, Puerto Rico are ranked No 128 in the world, just 10 places better than Spain's opponents tonight.

Pedro, the Barcelona forward who scored his country's opening goal in Spain's 2-1 win over Uruguay on Sunday, kept politely quiet when pressed for his thoughts on how many goals Spain might put past Tahiti.

"I don't know," he said. "It's true we're the clear favourites, but all games are tough and you have to play them as such. For sure, Tahiti will try to make it difficult for us. It's an important game for us, and we have to respect the opponent. You have to play the game instead of saying we are going to win and score such-and-such number of goals. I don't know if it's going to be a lopsided result, or not."

Etaeta assured reporters that regardless of the result this evening, "we consider ourselves champions".

The 180,000 people waiting for their countrymen to return to the South Pacific will be watching intently. So will the Tahitian government, who reportedly cut short a ministerial meeting to watch the game against Nigeria. And so will the 78,000 people expected to fill the Estadio Maracana on Thursday evening.

Tahiti are ready to take centre stage. Spain will simply be the sideshow.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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