BY MAT GUY
It is June 20th 2013 and the 79,000 seat Maracana stadium in Rio Di Janeiro, Brazil, a stadium that used to hold 200,000 people in its heyday, is preparing to host a Confederations Cup group match between the then champions of the world Spain and the lowest FIFA ranked team to ever take part in a major international football tournament, Tahiti. It is a mismatch of the most epic proportions, indeed most likely the greatest ever in the history of world football.
What’s more, it takes place in the Confederations Cup featuring the hosts Brazil, Spain – the champions of Europe – and their equivalents from Asia, Africa, North America, South America, and Oceania.
How did a team from a small Polynesian island listed as 179th in FIFA’s world rankings, that has only ever had one player leave its shores to play professional football abroad and that had never, before 2012, won anything in its entire footballing history, find themselves in the company of the world’s greats? Not only that, but how did they find themselves on the threshold of one of football’s little miracles; those glorious moments that help elevate the game from mundane to magical?
To understand that properly we need to travel back one year to June 2012, to the Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara, the Solomon Islands This was the site of Tahiti’s first little miracle.
The Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup (OFC for short) is held every four years, bringing together many of world football’s most obscure, mysterious nations.
Also used as the tournament for World Cup qualifying, where the four semi-finalists go on to compete for the one play-off spot available to the Oceania Confederation that often sees them come up against the sixth placed team from South America, the OFC Nations cup had – until 2012 – only ever been won by New Zealand (1973, 1998, 2002, 2008) and Australia.
The latter, however, unsatisfied with the level of competition, left the OFC after the 2006 World Cup to join its far stronger Asian counterpart, leaving New Zealand and a small collection of South Pacific Islands such as Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea, dotted across a vast area of ocean to the north and east of New Zealand to make up the world’s least known football confederation.
Look at that area on a globe and there is every chance you will miss the majority of Oceania’s nations, lost as they are, like tiny pin pricks of land among the deep blue expanse of the Southern Pacific; one of the planet’s most isolated, and isolating regions.
The huge distances needed to travel between these islands, allied to the relative poverty of these countries’ football associations mean that tournaments such as the Nations Cup – the 2012 renewal having been squeezed into ten days to keep costs down – represent a rare opportunity for these national teams to compete and develop. The Pacific Games, another tournament held every four years is the only other chance for these teams to play international football. Friendly matches against teams outside the confederation, let alone those within it, are virtually unheard of.
With Australia now out of the picture, New Zealand – with its relative wealth of resources and opportunity – seemed destined to dominate the Oceania confederation for decades to come.
The 2012 OFC Nations Cup began for Tahiti (only two teams in the competition were world ranked below them – the Solomon Islands at 183 and Papua New Guinea at 193, just 15 off bottom spot) with a midday kick off against Samoa on the June 1st in front of 3,000 spectators at The Lawson Tama Stadium.
For Samoa, even reaching this stage of the Nations Cup represented a major triumph, having won through a qualifying tournament held at their 3,500 capacity stadium in Apia against the Cook Islands, Tonga and American Samoa.
The tournament was captured in an amazing film called ‘Next Goal Wins’ about the struggles of the American Samoan National team, who had, before this qualifying tournament, never won an international match and who hold the record for the heaviest defeat in international football having lost 31 – 0 to Australia.
For American Samoa the qualifying tournament proved a watershed moment in their national team’s identity, winning their first ever international match and drawing another of their three games, however, it was their hosts who won out in front of 800 supporters to register a high water mark of their own and qualification into the Nations Cup finals.
Samoa’s last minute winner, however, would be the last time they would get to celebrate victory, losing three matches in the space of five days in the finals; 10-1 to Tahiti, then 5-0 to Vanuatu and 9-0 to New Caledonia. Even for Tahiti, a team completely unknown to the world before the Confederations Cup in 2013, there are National team minnows like Samoa beneath them.
Scoring for Tahiti in that opening 10-1 victory was very much a family affair, with twins Lorenzo (four goals) and Alvin (two) Tehau, their older brother Jonathan (two), and their cousin Teaonui Tehau who managed just the one, leading the rout (for the record, the tenth goal came courtesy of Steevy Chong Hue).
As Samoa struggled through the group stage, Tahiti shone with a 4-3 victory over New Caledonia on the June 3rd, and a 4-1 win over Vanuatu two days later in front of barely 1,000 spectators, meaning they topped the table and avoided New Zealand in the semi-finals, who won the second group with narrow victories against Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and a draw with the Solomon Islands.
Despite avoiding New Zealand, there must have been a sense of futility among the Tahitians, along with the other two semi-finalists as they prepared for the knock out phase. Whether you face them in the semi or the final, no-one had ever beaten New Zealand, or Australia before them, such was the dominance of the two largest nations in Oceania’s history.
So when Jonathan Tehau scored his fourth goal of the tournament to earn Tahiti a narrow semi-final victory over the Solomon Islands in front of 15,000 people, the Tahitians could be forgiven for allowing the elation at equalling Tahiti’s best ever result at the Nations Cup (runners up in 1996) to be replaced by a feeling of deflation at the prospect of another expected defeat by New Zealand in the final.
Despite New Zealand’s lack lustre display in the group stage they still had proven professionals in their side. Chris Wood had been hot property in the English Championship with Brighton and Hove Albion and had earned himself a transfer to Premier League West Bromwich Albion. Plenty of other New Zealand squad members played in the MLS in America and the A League in Australia. Others had experience of playing in Europe and beyond. None of them could have predicted what came next, but as Georges Gope-Fenepej scored in the 93rd minute to put New Caledonia 2-0 up in the second semi-final, an Oceania Hoodoo had been finally laid to rest, and a window of opportunity that had never previously been available to these tiny island nations swung open; either New Caledonia or Tahiti would play in Brazil at the Confederations Cup.
Having narrowly beaten New Caledonia in the group stage in front of 3,500 people, Tahiti repeated the feat – this time in front of more than 10,000 – with an early Steevy Chong Hue goal earning them their first ever title. It was a victory that earned very little coverage from the world’s media, but while it went unnoticed at the time, eventually their unlikely appearance at world football’s top table would put them firmly in the spotlight.
That first football miracle granted brothers Alvin and Jonathan Tehau, twin Lorenzo and cousin Teaonui and fellow goal-scorer Steevy Chong Hue the ultimate dream – to play the world champions, with the likes of Fernando Torres, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas, David Villa and Andres Iniesta, at one of world football’s iconic stadiums in front of 60,000 people. But now they were there, they weren’t about to let this once in a lifetime opportunity pass them by.
Cue little miracle number two.
In truth the miracle had begun a few days earlier in Belo Horizonte, where Tahiti played their first group game against African champions Nigeria.
In a side littered with famous names and players playing at the very top of the game, Nigeria found themselves 3-0 up within 26 minutes. That they were pushing Tahiti aside with relative ease came as no surprise to anyone. The response of the Tahitian team, however, was.
Despite being unable to match the superior technique, experience and ability of Nigeria, Tahiti did the only thing they knew how; they played the game they loved in the manner they loved, attacking Nigeria with an abandon rarely seen in major international competition, launching attack after attack, probing down the wings, their defenders fighting to protect their goal as if their very lives depended on it when the Nigerians countered. They never gave their opponents a minute’s peace, chasing down every lost ball, looking for every chance to drive toward Vincent Enyeama in the Nigerian goal.
It was simply spellbinding to see a team, fully aware of their shortcomings and the superiority of their opponents, still play the game on their terms, expressing their philosophy and attacking spirit with dynamic intent, regardless of whether that presented the Nigerian team with countless opportunities to score. They played without fear for the entire 90 minutes; picking themselves up whenever they conceded and starting again, looking for ways to attack, to play, to express.
And it was that spirit that enabled the greatest ever moment in Tahitian football to occur in the 54th minute, when Jonathan Tehau rose highest at a corner to power home a header, converting one of a few Tahitian chances to bring the score back to 3-1. To see a team attack, to try and play, even against the world’s best, then to see their endeavour rewarded with a goal, was a very moving experience.
To witness the purity and joy of the game on display at a world tournament, as felt by every child everywhere across the world with a ball at their feet and a scrap of land to play on, to see that simple desire of expression that every player at every level once felt when they were young, that made them fall in love with the game and made them want to devote their lives to it; to see it vibrant and flourishing in the Tahitian team, despite the inevitability of defeat, well it made the entire tournament. Who cared that they went on to lose the game 6-1?
For those that saw them play, who really remembered the score?
More memorable was the performance, the goal celebration; the entire team taking to one knee and paddling to represent their island heritage, and the emotional Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta speaking after the match:
‘I was deeply moved, almost crying. We watch World Cups on TV. Today we were actors. Tahiti was watching. Our President sent us a message and suspended a cabinet meeting for the match’.
Leading the celebrations after the goal, just as he had been the attacking flair before and after it was Marama Vahirua, a player on a slightly different adventure to the rest of his team-mates.
Unlike his brothers in arms, who played for such wonderful sounding teams as AS Dragon, AS Tamarii and AS Tefana back in Tahiti, Vahirua was, and still is, the only Tahitian to have ever played football abroad as a professional.
Having left his boyhood team AS Pirae in the late ‘90’s, Vahirua developed through the Nantes youth programme in France and became a first team regular in Ligue 1. He won the French title with Nantes and played in the Champions League for them, scoring a goal against PSV Eindhoven in the group stages.
In total he played 333 games in the French top flight with Nantes, Nice, Lorient, Nancy and Monaco, then a further 24 while on loan at Greek Super League side Panthrakikos in the season leading up to the Confederations Cup.
For Vahirua, at the age of 33, the Confederations Cup was the realisation of a dream to represent his country, a dream, ironically, that had been hampered by his successful career in Europe.
Like a number of players playing at a level far greater than their national team, there is huge pressure from the clubs that employ them to forgo international football; the possibility of injury to an asset of theirs in ‘meaningless’ matches such as those Tahiti play in at the Pacific Games or the OFC Nations Cup is far too great a gamble to take. Vahirua may have had to forsake his country for so long to further his career, but the wait was most certainly worth it.
At the final whistle you could get a sense of the meaning to what had just been witnessed; the emotion of the players, the coach, the supporters, both Tahitian and neutral, in the stadium and watching around the world, even the Nigerian players who hugged their opponents warmly, all helped to symbolise the importance of what had happened.
Beyond the score-line, beyond everything else, Tahiti had brought something to the world stage that no-one had expected; a re-imagining of the simple joy football can bring, the simple truths of unbridled expression that make it the most loved game on the planet.
On a stage where every move by every player is monitored, analysed, and deconstructed to enable the opposition a tactical advantage, on a stage where reams of paper are generated to cover the minute details of every passage of play, along came Tahiti with the simple desire to attack as best they could, to score as many goals as they could, to play the game they loved to play in the way they loved to play it.
A little miracle on the biggest of stages; but even bigger was yet to come.
The refurbished Maracana Stadium in Rio Di Janeiro, a stadium that in its heyday held 200,000 played host to something that even this old icon of the world game had never seen before; a match between the world champions Spain and tiny Tahiti, ranked 179th in the world.
Surely there could be no room for miracles, no opportunity for the joy the Tahitian team created in their first game. It just couldn’t be possible, could it?
Despite facing a team bursting with the stars of Barcelona, Real Madrid and numerous other European powerhouse clubs, Vahirua, Jonathan and Alvin Tehau, Steevy Chong Hue and the rest of the Tahitian team once more played the game with an infectious enthusiasm and on their terms.
Not even a Fernando Torres goal in five minutes (the first of his four goals that night) could change their philosophy. World champions or not, Tahiti were going to play the way they always did, with attacking flair.
They knew they were hopelessly outclassed by the very best that world football had to offer, but nevertheless, Tahiti played as they wanted, just as they did a year earlier in front of a few thousand people on a remote Pacific island against Samoa.
That all five who scored in that match on the Solomon Islands against Samoa got to taste the experience of playing Spain at the Maracana made the magic and the little miracle even more complete.
Tahiti played without fear, but couldn’t find the goal that would have turned this minor miracle into a major one, and at the final whistle after a 10-0 defeat, they drank in the applause from the stands and the respect of the world’s best.
As had been the case in Belo Horizonte, the real talking point from the game was the refreshing and inspirational attitude Tahiti had brought to the Confederations Cup; their desire to express themselves, to express football, Tahitian style in the face of almost certain heavy defeat game after game became the highlight of the entire tournament.
That a group of amateur and semi-professional players from a country starved of the opportunity to play at international level could have captured the hearts of the world football community seemed unthinkable before the tournament started.
Numerous commentators claimed that their inclusion in the tournament was a farce and would damage the reputation of the game; something Spanish boss Vicente Del Bosque would dispute in his post-match interview.
Reflecting what the moral majority of football loving people the world over felt, he said:
‘Tahiti set an example in terms of fair play and went forward whenever they had the opportunity. We didn’t score more goals because they didn’t let us. This game hasn’t damaged football in any way. In some ways it’s made it even stronger’
Tahiti’s 8-0 loss to Uruguay in their last group match in Recife did nothing to change the mood that Del Bosque had described; there is, after all, no humiliation in conceding to Abel Hernandez and Luis Suarez. The Polynesian islanders left the world stage with a lot of respect and a lot more friends than when they had arrived.
New Zealand, who reverted back to type by winning the World Cup play-off spot afforded the Oceania Football Confederation prior to the Confederations cup of 2013 lost to Mexico 9-3 on aggregate, missed out on the World Cup in 2014; another example of the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots in international football.
Marama Vahirua, Tahiti’s most successful player and the only one to have made a living out of the game by playing outside of the island nation, retired from international football after the Confederations Cup. His International career had lasted ten days and three matches, but at 33 he knew that he would probably be too old to try and repeat his country’s feat at the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, when he would have turned 36, or at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017 if they could.
His career in Europe had prevented him from representing his nation more, but if you had to pick three games in which you could pull on the shirt and represent your country, well he couldn’t have picked a better three. On his international retirement he was appointed Technical Director of the Tahitian Football Federation; his job now to find the next Marama Vahirua.
The match against Uruguay on the June 23rd 2013, despite being two years ago, remains the last international match that Tahiti played; their geographical isolation and the region’s financial paucity preventing friendlies between tournaments – the next of which being the Pacific Games in July 2015, to be held on Papua New Guinea, followed by the OFC Nations Cup – with its new format – beginning in October 2015.
To try and counter the lack of opportunity and development that Oceania nations experience due to geography and money (Tahiti’s two year absence from international football despite their impact on the Confederations Cup being a prime example), the Oceania Football Confederation decided to play the 2016 Nations Cup on a home and away, round robin basis instead of an entire tournament taking place in ten days. The new OFC funded format will give teams regular matches stretching over a year, enabling them to hopefully develop as a side within the prospect of regular competition and training.
Also, international matches across all the islands will help raise the profile of the national teams and the game within each country, right the way across the region, hopefully firing the imaginations of the next generation of players.
So, what of the Tehau boys?
Eldest brother Jonathan, who has played 25 times for Tahiti, including all three matches at the Confederations Cup, twins Lorenzo (20 caps, 2 Confederations Cup appearances) and Alvin (18 caps, 2 at the Confed Cup), and cousin Teaonui (17, and 1 substitute appearance against Spain) all melted back into Tahitian life and continue to play the game they love.
Jonathan remains, and may do for some time, the only Tahitian to have ever scored at a major international tournament.
All are looking forward, despite Tahiti dropping in the FIFA world rankings to 182, to the Pacific Games, and beyond that the OFC Nations Cup.
And when that comes around, when they dare to dream of winning it once more, with the opportunity that will bring, you can’t help but want to root for them, to wish them all the best.
Their performances in Brazil prove that, to the football purists, who love the simple joys of it can bring, they would be most welcome.
To whoever makes it from this collection of tiny islands hidden among the deep blue expanse of the South pacific (if they can defeat New Zealand for only the second time in the confederation’s history), let’s hope they take the opportunity with the verve and passion that Tahiti, Marama Vahirua, Steevy Chong Hue and the Tehau boys did in 2013, creating a little more Oceania magic and history.