The Confederations Cup has begun. The excitement of the world’s champion nations taking the stage and fighting to claim the first drop of blood in the battle to be named favourite for next year’s World Cup has kicked off in earnest on the sunny shores of Brazil.
But among these displays of attacking flair and defensive might, there is a wholly unpredictable development. Tahiti are at the Confederations Cup.
The French Polynesians will take their place on the world stage with a first matchup against Nigeria before facing reigning world and European champion Spain. Uruguay will mark the end of the Tahitians’ Brazilian dream, for let’s make one thing clear: Tahiti are not here to win.
One can hope they will ignore delusions of grandeur, and try to take the game to their rivals. Swap defensive tactics for the simple chance of making the mighty seem just that little less immortal -- even if it is for just that one pass, solo run or shot on goal. For out of all the squads assembling in Brazil, Tahiti is the only country that has already had the die cast for its fortunes.
Their inexperience at this level will quickly become obvious, the unfamiliar names found wanting, and in a sign of things to come, coach Eddy Etaeta has set a very low bar, hoping to go through just a single half "without conceding a goal."
By the time of the Confederations Cup semifinals, Tahiti will have returned to soccer obscurity.
The Oceania Football Confederation, the Pacific arm of the world’s governing body, has long caused concern to the football family, the only known pawn to move backward as the kings and queens break promises and allegiances as easily as they say the words that forged them.
The torment of the Oceania nations is the fact they are the only FIFA confederacy to not have a full spot at the game’s biggest tournament -- the World Cup. They are forced to again and again take their half-spot and face the battle-hardened might of South America, Europe or Asia.
The argument that the region doesn't offer the quality soccer worthy of a World Cup is credible. Australia and New Zealand have been the main two combatants for the Pacific title, trouncing all before them (recall the Socceroos' world record 31-0 victory over America Samoa) on the road to the final. And unsurprisingly, it’s those two nations who have gone on to represent Oceania at the world’s showpiece event -- Australia in 1974 and 2006, New Zealand in 1982 and 2010. And now that Australia has absconded to Asia, it’s the Kiwis who regularly await one of the smaller nations for the chance to take their fight to an ever-changing opponent from some far-flung corner of the world.
But there is a strong counterview that FIFA is eternally failing one of its core beliefs: a mission to “develop the game, touch the world, build a better future.” A Confederations Cup may put Tahiti on display for the world, but by not giving Oceania its full title as a FIFA member, the world’s governing body is condemning the region to a future that reeks of stagnation.
Many Pacific players have limited opportunities to progress to better leagues than their domestic competitions. The O-League (Oceania’s Champions League) has been won by a New Zealand side six out of the past seven seasons, with only Papua New Guinea’s PRK Hekari United breaking the Kiwis’ stranglehold in 2010. Meanwhile, the region’s premier competition, Australia’s A-League, has yet to see a truly strong exposure of Pacific influence outside the Wellington Phoenix. In fact, outside of Marama Vahirua, who is on loan to Panthrakikos in Greece, all of Tahiti’s Confederations Cup players remain homebound.
It would seem that through the lack of a genuine route to the World Cup, players from the Pacific’s atolls and archipelagos have stumbled side-to-side and back, but rarely forward.
The point was rammed home when France legend Christian Karembeu took the stage at the 2006 World Cup draw as the representative for Oceania. The fact that New Caledonian-bred Karembeu took the colours of Les Bleus for his successful international career seemed lost on officials who had overlooked so many who had forged their entire careers throughout the Pacific.
But the coup de grace came in 2002. FIFA president Sepp Blatter sent Oceania hearts aflutter by promising that the region would have an automatic spot in the 2006 World Cup -- the Pacific nations' reward for helping Blatter to another term as FIFA's leader. It was a joy short-lived. A year later, and pressed by the powerful CONMEBOL federation, the FIFA executive committee revoked its decision on the back of a 22-1 vote, and gave the half-spot back to the South Americans. Once again, the champion of Oceania would be forced to have a playoff against a nation that had failed to not only win its qualifying process, but even secure one of the four automatic spots blessed to CONMEBOL.
At the time, it was thought Oceania’s unruly governing body and New Zealand’s poor showing at the 2003 Confederations Cup had undermined the region’s cause. But that didn't seem to faze Blatter, who just a year later again solemnly vowed that the Pacific would have its automatic World Cup spot. It has been nine years, and the waiting continues.
There have been good-luck stories salvaged from the wreckage of doomed campaigns -- Australia beat Uruguay on penalties in 2005, while New Zealand defeated Bahrain 1-0 to book their ticket for the 2010 South Africa World Cup -- but still, the odd victory has been swamped in the misery of fighting for recognition.
Tahiti, though, is an interesting prospect. The nation’s under-20 team qualified for the 2009 World Cup in Egypt, and the under-17 side reached three consecutive finals of the Oceania championships late last decade. There is hope the current senior side can build from these junior achievements and fashion a squad forged together through the ranks.
But as shown with New Zealand in 2003, much can be decided by the performance of a side at the Confederations Cup. Fail spectacularly, and the whole region suffers.
Yet maybe the opposite is also true. Perhaps with some luck, Tahiti can display their potential and show the world, and FIFA, that Oceania is more than just a sideshow.