The sirens and flashing lights of the police convoy leading the coach through the darkened streets of Belo Horizonte in the early hours of June 7th must have attracted curious stares from late night drinkers and dog walkers. After all, such fanfare is usually reserved for visiting rock royalty, such as Elton John and Paul McCartney, who recently played at the giant Mineirão World Cup stadium, or one of the city’s two soccer teams, Atlético and Cruzeiro, returning home after a big away victory.
On the bus, a couple of dozen young men in lurid red shirts, imprinted with white floral patterns, peered out warily. This was the Tahiti national football squad, in Brazil for the Confederations Cup. Ahead lay games against Nigeria, world and European champions Spain, and Uruguay. It was the first time ever that the national side had played a competitive game outside Oceania, and only the second time Tahiti had faced a team not from its own continent (the first was against Mexico in French Polynesia, in 1980. Tahiti lost that game 1-0).
“We’re really happy to be here,” said coach Eddy Etaeta, whose team overcame such giants as the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia to qualify for the tournament (Oceania’s traditional soccer giants, Australia, absconded to the Asian Football Federation in 2006). “It’s a huge moment for Tahitian football. We’re hoping the Brazilian fans will get behind us,” Etaeta smiled.
That was almost guaranteed even before the opening game against Nigeria. If it is tempting to portray every underdog from the world’s more remote sporting outposts as beaming ingénues, this time the stereotype may not have been that far from the truth - in the nicest possible sense. Traditional Tahitian shell necklaces were draped around the necks of blushing journalists. A rousing anthem written by goalkeeper Xavier Samin was sung by the team, arms draped around teammates’ shoulders, before and after training sessions. The manager and players were friendly and approachable in interviews, coming out with not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house classics such as defensive midfielder Lorenzo Tehau’s declaration that “the whole team is my family. I’ve played with Samin since I was a kid. He’s like my dad.” In fact, Lorenzo has two real brothers (center back Jonathan and midfielder Teaonui) and one cousin (forward Alvin) in the squad.
In return, from the moment they arrived in Belo Horizonte ten days before the start of the tournament, Tahiti were clasped to the Mineiro bosom. There was a special dinner with the mayor of the city, washed down with Brazilian soft drink Guaraná (the players’ opinions of the tooth-rottingly sweet liquid were not recorded). The team went to see Atlético and Ronaldinho Gaúcho play at the nearby Arena Jacaré. Perhaps most importantly, a link-up was agreed with América, another Belo Horizonte side, which will see a number of young Tahitian players train with the club, who will in turn provide “technical and scientific expertise” (the mind boggles) to help the development of the game back home.
In the battle for local hearts and minds, the contrast between Tahiti and Nigeria could hardly have been greater. While the islanders’ charm offensive was in full swing, the African squad went on strike in a dispute over win bonuses, and refused to leave Johannesburg airport until it was resolved. It was only in the early hours of Sunday, the day before the game, that the team, looking bedraggled and exhausted, arrived in Belo Horizonte.
That was probably a good thing, for Tahiti was going to need all the help it can get. The island’s population is only around 178,000 (the Belo Horizonte metropolitan area boasts almost 4.9 million inhabitants), and football plays second fiddle to canoeing and surfing. Only one of the team, striker Marama Vahirua, who spent last year with Panathinaikos in Greece, was a professional, with the rest of the squad comprised of truck drivers, teachers and office workers. Nine of the players were unemployed. In the build up to the competition, Tahiti lost to Chile Under-20s 7-0, then improved sufficiently to only lose 1-0 to América, who play in the Brazilian second division. While admitting the superiority of the Nigerians, Vahirua promised that Tahiti would fight like “lions” on Monday.
Once the game was finally underway, the players soon discovered that their new Brazilian friends had not deserted them. Of the relatively small crowd of 20,000 (the fixture, hardly a glamor tie, was played on a workday afternoon, and Confederations Cup tickets are far from cheap), almost everyone was supporting Tahiti. Many were dressed in Tahiti red, some carried the Tahitian flag. Some fans even sported bright red wigs.
Reinaldo Andrade, a dispatch manager and Corinthians fan, had travelled up from Santos for the game. After lustily shouting his way through the Tahiti national anthem (“I don’t know all the words,” he apologized, “but I’ve learnt most of them”), he proceeded to cheer every time the team touched the ball. “I’m going to see them (against Spain) on Thursday in Rio too,” he enthused. “Most of football is about teams like Tahiti, not superstars,” he explained, “that’s why I feel an affinity towards them. They’re doing their best.” He was with a group of four other Tahiti sympathizers, whom he met through an internet community entitled Futebol Alternativo, dedicated to the support of footballing underdogs.
On the pitch, Tahiti started brightly enough, with the fans’ vociferous support urging the team on. That lasted about 5 minutes, until a series of cruel deflections sent Echiejile’s shot looping slowly past Samin. Though Tahiti continued to chase and harry, the gulf in class was telling, and by half time Nigeria was 3-0 ahead, having enjoyed almost 70% of possession.
After the first few minutes of the second half, it appeared the fans’ interest was on the wane. The result was no longer in doubt (if it ever had been), the novelty of Belo Horizonte’s Confederations Cup opener had worn off, and thoughts turned to how best to beat the city’s infernal rush hour traffic on the way home. Even Reinaldo had disappeared. But then further down towards the front of the stands a chant began. Taiti! Taiti! Taiti! A group of young men, stripped to the waist, their torsos painted red with the letters T-A-I-T-I stenciled in white, trotted past, singing. The rest of the crowd joined in. Tahiti won a corner. Vahirua hit it deep, onto the head of Jonathan Tehau, who headed it back across goal and bouncing into the net. As the Tahitian players celebrated near the corner flag with a “rowing the canoe” dance, their festivities were hardly greater than those of the crowd. As Globo journalist Jonathan Castro put it later, “not even a goal by Atlético or Cruzeiro would have been celebrated with as much gusto.”
Tahiti had its moments after that, with Vahirua in particular impressing, but a generally sloppy looking Nigeria finally decided to step just a little harder on the gas, and eventually ran out comfortable 6-1 winners. This was also the signal for the end of the love-in on the terraces – 6-1 was the score line of an infamous Cruzeiro drubbing of Atlético back in 2011, and as the Cruzeiro fans started to mockingly recall the fact, the joyful shouts of Taiti! Taiti! Taiti! were replaced by angry words and gestures.
Among the Tahiti players and technical staff, however, the party continued. “It’s like a fairy tale,” said Etaeta. “I told them the most important thing was to at least score, and we did it. I’m so proud of them. Polynesia is proud of its sons.” Belo Horizonte too, had a new team to be proud off, even if just for one day. “I want to thank the Brazilian fans,” said Vahirua, “they adopted us today.”
And Tahiti’s adventure was only beginning. A few days later, the team travelled to Rio, to face Spain at the Maracanã. There were more shell necklaces for the Spanish players, but if that was a plea for mercy, it didn`t quite work. Against a mainly reserve side, Tahiti were annihilated 10-0, the largest defeat in the history of the Confederations Cup. Still, if it’s possible to feel victorious after such a drubbing, then Tahiti may have managed it. Once again, the crowd cheered for the underdogs throughout, signing “vamos virá Taiti” (“let’s turn it around, Tahiti”) after Spain’s first goal, and crying ”Ole! Ole!” when their new favourites managed to string a pass or two together.
“We‘ve won the hearts of the Brazilian people,” said Etaeta afterwards. And not just the Brazilians. Fernando Torres said that “Tahiti were an example for other teams. All of us have become fans. It was a joy to play in the match not because we won easily, but because they were sporting, and played the game with smiles on their faces.”
The Tahiti coach, however, wasn’t in quite such a romantic mood. “Of course we were never going to win, but some of the goals we conceded were a bit naïve,” he grumbled.
After that it was off to Recife, in the nordeste of Brazil, to face Copa America holders Uruguay. Another game, another goleada (heavy defeat), 8-0 this time), and another avalanche of affection tumbling down from the stands. And this time it was reciprocated, as the team unfurled a huge “Obrigado, Brasil!” (“Thanks, Brazil!”) banner on the field after the game.
Three defeats. Twenty four goals conceded. One goal scored. And 195 million hearts conquered. It might not even be a stretch to suggest that Brazil`s fascination with Tahiti was intensified by the national mood outside the stadiums. The vast wave of demonstrations against political corruption that swept the streets during the Confederations Cup attracted many negative headlines for violence and vandalism, but in truth the demonstrations were in the main overwhelmingly peaceful, even inspiring events. As students presented riot shield bearing policemen with flowers, and huge crowds spontaneously broke into the national anthem, the Tahiti spirit was often alive on the streets as well as on the field.
Still, as the team headed for home, there was a note of caution from Eddy Etaeta. “We’re better known in Brazil than Tahiti. It’s really frustrating. People back home aren’t talking about us. They don’t know who we are.”
Perhaps Mr Etaeta shouldn’t worry quite so much. If Tahiti carry on playing football with a smile, soon the whole world will know who they are. Even the folks back home.
Follow James on Twitter @seeadarkness.