Confederations Cup: Tiny Tahiti proudly embracing their amateur status
It has become the standard for teams from the Oceania Confederation to be the source of curiosity and amused speculation when they qualify to play in world football tournaments, and this year's flag-bearer at the Confederations Cup is Tahiti.
A nation with only 11,000 registered footballers and the first Pacific Islands state to play in such a tournament, Tahiti beat New Caledonia in the final of last year's Oceania Nations Cup – where 2010 World Cup qualifier New Zealand finished third.
Things are likely to be a bit tougher when the Tahitians play in Brazil. Drawn into Group B, Tahiti will face world champion Spain, South American champion Uruguay and African champion Nigeria.
"[We're] playing with the big boys now," Tahiti coach Eddie Etaeta said. "There are 99 per cent amateurs and one per cent professional football players in the world and our Toa Aito [national team] have earned the opportunity to represent amateur football against the greatest nations in the world.
"Even if we are amateur players, we have to be prepared to perform as professionals."
Tahiti are ranked 138th in the world, sandwiched between Sudan and Rwanda. They have not previously qualified for a major Fifa senior competition, although the country reached the Under 20 World Cup in Egypt in 2009 – where they were also drawn in a group with Nigeria and Spain. Several members of that team are included in the current squad.
Etaeta was a member of the 1994 Tahiti team, the first from the nation to play in a World Cup qualifying tournament.
"It's amazing to think that here we are, a little country of 250,000 people, playing against the best teams in the world," Etaeta said. "It's going to be exciting to face Spain at the Maracana and it will be an incredible feeling if we can score. As for our objectives, we need to be realistic."
Tahiti's most high-profile player is Papeete-born striker Marama Vahirua, who became the country's first overseas-based professional when he signed with French club Nantes in 1998. For the last 15 years, he has remained Tahiti's sole footballing export and is currently on loan to Greek club Panthrakikos.
The Tahiti squad also includes the four members of the Te Hau family – brothers Alvin, Jonathan, Lorenzo and their cousin Teaonui.
As Etaeta has noted, most of the Tahiti players are essentially amateur, though not without international experience. Their recent participation in World Cup qualifying matches, which encompassed the Oceania Nations Cup, has given many of the squad exposure to a higher level of the game.
"Some people say it won't be possible to get the results we need in," Etaeta said, "but I can assure you we will not be taking any tourists with us to Brazil."
Tahiti at a glance
Fifa World Ranking 138
Qualified as Oceania champions
Best Confederations Cup result First time in the tournament
Other major honours Oceania Nations Cup champions: 2012; Runners-up: 1973, 1980, 1995; South Pacific Games: Champions 1966, 1975, 1979, 1983, 1995
Coach Eddy Etaeta
Prospects Coach Eddy Etaeta admits that Tahiti will be looking to keep the goals they concede to an acceptable limit and not be embarrassed when they face Nigeria, Spain and Uruguay in their Group B games. Clearly, by winning the Oceania championship last year, Tahiti are capable of scoring and defending well at their own level. Marama Vahirua, who has had a long career in France, is their only professional, but they lack any top-level international experience and are unlikely to avoid defeat in any of their three games.
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