“We’re playing with the big boys now,” was the verdict of the Tahiti coach Eddie Etaeta. Never was a truer word spoken. Etaeta, a school teacher and former national team player and his team of amateurs from the South Pacific were about to step onto the global footballing stage for the very first time.

Ranked 138th in the world at the time, sitting inconspicuously between Sudan and Rwanda in FIFA’s rankings, Tahiti had earned the right to take part in the 2013 Confederations Cup alongside some of the real elite of the world’s game. They would take on the champions of Africa, Europe (who were the reigning world champions to boot) and South America in venues befitting such illustrious opponents in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and Recife. 

Tahiti, a nation with only 11,000 registered footballers in a population of around 250,000, and the first Pacific Island nation to ever reach a senior FIFA tournament, isn’t even a country. It is the largest island in French Polynesia and as such is officially part of France. Football on Tahiti is a decidedly amateur affair.

“There are 99 percent amateurs and 1 percent professional football players in the world,” Etaeta added. “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.”

It was a far cry from the tournament that brought them to Brazil, in the rather less salubrious surroundings of the Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara, Solomon Islands. They earned this opportunity by becoming the first nation other than Australia or New Zealand to win the Oceania Nations Cup, played in Honiara in June 2012.

For a team that were set to be on the receiving end of some heavy defeats in Brazil, Tahiti began their OFC Nations Cup campaign inflicting the same kind of beating to one of Oceania’s real minnows, with a thumping 10-1 victory over Samoa. Remarkably, nine of the 10 goals that day came from members of the Tehau family. Twins Lorenzo and Alvin both got on the scoresheet with four and two goals respectively, while their older brother Jonathan contributed two. Just for good measure, their cousin Teaonui found the net too.

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Tahiti won their group with wins over New Caledonia (4-3) and Vanuatu (4-1) earning them a semi-final against the hosts from the Solomon Islands, avoiding having to face New Zealand at that stage. Jonathan Tehau scored the only goal in a narrow 1-0 win, meaning that Tahiti would at the very least match their best ever finish when they were runners-up in 1996.

They would surely have expected to face New Zealand in the final; a team that had performed admirably in the South Africa World Cup just two years earlier who could boast the likes of Chris Wood up front, fresh from a good season in the English Championship. Such an outcome would have left them as underdogs naturally, but events in the other semi-final didn’t pan out that way. New Caledonia shocked the Kiwis to win 2-0 setting up an all French final at the other end of the Earth.

Having already edged past New Caledonia in the group stage, confidence was high in the Tahitian camp; far higher than it would have been had New Zealand been the opposition. It was a justified confidence too as an early strike from Steevy Chong Hue sealed another narrow victory and earned Tahiti’s first piece of major silverware.

More than that, it gave the opportunity to travel to Brazil for the Confederations Cup to face the “big boys” as Etaeta had described it. It may have been Tahiti’s first ever appearance at a senior level FIFA competition, but many of the squad travelling to Brazil – Tahiti’s golden generation if you will – had taken part in the 2009 under-20 World Cup in Egypt where, as they would in Brazil, they had faced Nigeria and Spain. It was a chastening experience as Tahiti lost all three group games, conceding twenty-one goals in the process, and scoring none.

Shortly after their Oceanian success, Tahiti’s political status as part of France meant they took part in the biennial Coupe de l’Outre-Mer in Paris, a French FA tournament for France’s overseas territories. Far from providing a boost to morale ahead of the challenge that lay ahead, Tahiti lost their opening game to the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte. They did recover to win their next two games but it wasn’t enough to even reach the semi-finals. A confidence booster it was not.

The trip to France did yield a significant reward, however. The only Tahitian player to play professionally was a 33-year-old named Marama Vahirua. At the time, he was on the books of French top flight club Nancy, although they loaned him out to Greek club Panthrakikos. A former French under-21 international, he had played at the highest level with more than 300 appearances in Ligue 1, as well as playing for Nantes in the Champions League.

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He had left Tahiti and his hometown of Papeete some 15 years earlier to join the Nantes youth setup, but his professional success had come at a price. He’d been unable to represent his country in what his European employers would have considered to be meaningless, lowly tournaments such as the Pacific Games or the OFC Nations Cup. Qualification for the Confederations Cup, however, meant that Vahirua’s dream of playing for Tahiti could finally, belatedly come true. 

While Tahiti’s trip to Brazil was seen in some quarters as a heart-warming tale of against-the-odds success, their lowly status and amateur squad – Vahirua aside – meant that their very presence in Brazil was questioned by some. Lambs to the slaughter they may have been, but they had earned the right to be there. The fear of course was that in their first ever official senior matches against teams from outside Oceania they would embarrass themselves, and therefore by extension embarrass the tournament.

The African champions, Nigeria, were the first test lying in wait for Tahiti in a match played in the Mineirao in Belo Horizonte. It was a match that would end with a five goal defeat but would provide the most iconic scene of the whole competition. What would be remembered most about this match wasn’t that Nigeria scored within five minutes of the start, after a farcical stroke of luck when the ball rebounded to goal scorer Uwa Echiejile from the referee. Nor would it be that a second was added soon after, or that Tahiti shot themselves in the foot by scoring an own goal. 

Rather, the moment that the world would remember, and the image that illustrated most match reports the following day, came early in the second half. Already three goals down, Tahiti’s Jonathan Tehau, a delivery driver when he’s not competing in global football events, headed home at the far post from a deep corner triggering rapturous and raucous celebrations from the Tahitians on the pitch and the Brazilians in the crowd.

The image beamed around the world was of Tehau and his teammates celebrating by going down on one knee and pretending to paddle canoes in honour of Tahiti’s national sport of Va’a canoe racing.

The energy and effervescence of the Tahitians had been the most notable aspect of the match, as they strung together several series of passes and neat moves, retaining possession quite well at times. They may have been facing an opposition of far higher standing, but they were trying to play the game their way, without fear, attacking when the opportunities arose. That their spirit and bravery had been rewarded with a goal was a moment to cherish for football lovers the world over.

For a spell after scoring, they visibly grew in confidence, frustrating their more illustrious opponents, before the amateurs eventually ran out of steam and succumbed to a late Nigerian flurry. It was Tehau himself who netted the own goal which cancelled out his historic strike at the other end, but nothing could dampen his spirits on a night he would never forget.

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“I am so proud to score,” he told reporters afterwards. “I saw the gap and went for it. We showed we could play some football, and yes we lost, but we deserved at least a goal and we got it.” When subsequently asked about his own-goal shortly after his moment of glory, Tehau laughed and said: “Well, that’s just football.” 

It had been a moving experience, fully embraced by their Nigerian counterparts too. The Nigerian players hugged the Tahitians warmly at the final whistle, as the emotion of their moment in the global spotlight spilled over for some. “I was deeply moved, almost crying,” said Eddie Etaeta. “We watch World Cups on TV. Today we were actors.”

In the stadium that would become the scene of Brazil’s nightmare 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany a year later, Tahiti had performed with a refreshing degree of style and positivity in the face of overwhelming odds. That they provided the moment of the tournament was the icing on the cake. That lone headed goal was all Tahiti needed for their Brazilian adventure to be nothing other than a success.

A few days later, Tahiti’s band of enthusiastic hopefuls moved a little south to one of the grandest settings in all of world football. They would be taking on none other than the world and European champions, Spain, in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana. There has surely never been such an epic mismatch in the history of international football. It was a far cry from opening OFC Nations Cup match against Samoa in front of just 3,000 spectators a year before.

That Spain subjected Tahiti to the biggest thrashing in FIFA completion history, in terms of tournament finals anyway, was of little relevance. The 10-0 scoreline wasn’t entirely unexpected after all. But once again it was the spirit and perseverance of the Tahiti players that most caught the eye. 

Having conceded in the opening minutes once more, Tahiti then kept out the likes of Fernando Torres and David Villa for nigh on the next half an hour. So what if they went on to concede double figures? They never gave up in the face of one of the greatest national teams of all-time.

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Spain, for their part, played the game the right way too. It might have been easy to lapse into a training ground mentality and take it easy, or to veer into showboating to humiliate their opponents, but Spain played it as they would any other match, following Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque’s insistence that his players show Tahiti full respect. “Tahiti set an example in terms of fair play and went forward whenever they had the opportunity,” he explained. “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.”

“We focused like we were playing a final,” added Fernando Torres. “Spain have shown respect from the first minute to the last minute and that’s important. Often inferior teams look to break up the game and get aggressive; they play without spirit or hope. Standards aside, Tahiti showed a great example of how to go about playing football. We have tried to show them respect in every sense.”

It was a gesture that was appreciated by the Tahitians, even if it meant the Spanish didn’t let up even as the margin continued to grow. It was also noted by the crowd who embraced Tahiti’s sterling efforts with warm and generous support. “I’m still in the stars,” said Mikael Roche, Tahiti’s 30-year-old sports teacher cum goalkeeper said after the match. “The Brazilian crowd has been such a wonderful crowd, they’ve been cheering for us even though we’re just small players, a small team.  I’ll never forget what they did for us.”

Four days later: another match, another heavy defeat. This time it was the South American champions Uruguay who racked up the goals in an 8-0 victory. It hardly mattered. Tahiti’s place in football folklore had already been assured by what had gone before. The islanders would leave the global footballing stage with a great deal more respect than they had arrived with.

Football is a global game and not the preserve solely of big nations. For better or worse, Tahiti’s presence in Brazil was a reminder of that. Perhaps most of all, Tahiti’s endeavours showed what is good about football. If you earn it, you can take your place alongside the great and the good of the game. 

Not for me the ridicule of a mismatch and the arrogant, narrow view that Tahiti shouldn’t have been there. They were continental champions. They earned it. And more than that, their performances demonstrated football’s power for good. Its ability to make dreams come true, and to allow the possibility to dream in the first place. Success in sport is a relative concept, and for Tahiti, the 2013 Confederations Cup represented their pinnacle, their Everest, their footballing fulfilment 

By Aidan Williams    @yad_williams