Thursday 22 February 2024, 07:00

Tehau aiming high with Tahiti

  • Tahiti appearing at their seventh FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup™

  • FIFA Forward supporting Tahitian beach soccer

  • Teaonui Tehau proud to be representing his country at a major tournament

With their fine white sand, palm trees, clear blue skies overhead, and picture-postcard scenery, the beaches of Tahiti are known the world over. They are also legendary stretches of sand, for it is on these beaches that the mighty Tiki Toa hone their skills, which have taken them to seven FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup™ competitions, the latest of them UAE 2024 Dubai.

“It’s a big thing for Tahitian people, historic even,” Tiki Toa star Teaonui Tehau told Inside FIFA. “It gives us great joy and pride to represent this little island at such a big event. OK, so we’ve never won the title, but we’re always there or thereabouts. We’ve made the final twice and we’ve got every reason to believe we can go all the way this year.”

It took Tahiti just under a decade to muscle their way into the upper echelons of the sport, alongside the likes of Brazil, Japan, Portugal and Italy, whom the islanders will face in the quarter-finals of UAE 2024 Dubai, on 22 February. What makes that achievement all the more impressive is that the Tahitian national team only came into existence less than 20 years ago. “The 2013 World Cup set it all off. The whole of Tahiti fell in love with the game, no one more than me. I was watching from the stands and I didn’t miss a single game. All I wanted to do was be on the sand.”

That might sound strange coming from a player who learned his football skills on grass, is the national 11-a-side team’s leading all-time scorer with 24 goals, and played at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013™ and the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009™. But perhaps more than anywhere else, Tahiti is a place where football, beach soccer and futsal seem to be one and the same sport.

“That’s right, there are lots of us on the island who play all three,” he said. “I get the same enjoyment out of all of them. The only difference is the technique and the vision you need. It’s true that a good 11-a-side football player doesn’t necessarily make a good beach soccer or futsal player, and vice versa, so I can’t really say why switching from one game to the other seems so easy for us, because it isn’t actually all that easy. Maybe that versatility is a cultural thing.”

Whatever the case may be, Tahiti is not only benefiting from that versatility but actively cultivating it. The nation’s holy sporting trinity provides the focal point of the Festival des Iles. Held every year in Tahiti, this major tournament brings together men’s and women’s beach soccer, football and futsal teams in a variety of age groups and from islands all across the Polynesian region.

“It’s a massive, unmissable event for us Tahitians – it’s our other World Cup,” said Tehau, who was part of the Green Warriors side that lost in the 2023 final to Tiki Tama, who boast a number of internationals among their ranks, including Patrick Tepa and Heirauarii Salem. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a league to speak of, so it’s one of the few occasions in the year when we can test ourselves and take on the best.”

On a visit to Tahiti last July to open an artificial pitch funded by the FIFA Forward Development Programme, FIFA President Gianni Infantino attended the Festival’s spectacular opening ceremony in person. FIFA also provided USD 259,000 in funding for the tournament.

It is through the Forward programme that world football’s governing body has also contributed USD 105,000 to the travel costs incurred by the Tiki Toa. That funding allowed them to prepare in the best possible way for the World Cup by travelling to Brazil, the home of beach soccer, for a four-week training camp, with the Tahitians also playing warm-up matches against local teams.

“It was a great experience, useful and rewarding,” said Tehau, speaking at the halfway stage of UAE 2024 Dubai. “It allowed us to arrive in top shape for the World Cup, raring to go.” Rounding things off, the Tahiti star made no secret of the fact that his most cherished dream is also a very real objective: “All I want is for Tahiti to be world champions.”

Achieve that and they truly will be kings of the sand.