Wednesday 02 February 2022, 08:00

The Polynesian missionary

  • Roonui Tinirauarii was a missionary in Africa and is now a police officer

  • He had to wite a letter to the Tahitian chief of police to get time off for UAE 2021

  • The striker discusses his fascinating story and targets for the tournament

A Mormon missionary, stationed in Togo in 2018, awoke at 5:10am for what he believed would be a standard Sunday. It began habitually. By 6am he was studying scriptures. By 8:30am he was at sacrament. By 9:45am he was out on the streets preaching the gospel. Then, over fufu and beans at lunch, it took an atypical detour. The 20-year-old was told he would be given a few hours off that afternoon – a non-existent occurrence in the undeviating, 6am-till-9pm life of a missionary. Another religion was the cause. The one Pele christened ‘The Beautiful Game’. Its quadrennial showpiece was on TV. In it N’Golo Kante, born in Paris to Malian parents, would be flying the flag for West Africa. Togo was abuzz and Roonui Tinirauarii duly cheered as the battery-powered midfielder helped France conquer the FIFA World Cup™.

N'Golo Kante of France with the FIFA World Cup trophy

Kante is now bidding to become a global king again – in a different shade of bleu. This time, though, Roonui won’t be willing him on from the break room of a Latter-Day Saints church. In something beyond his wildest prayers, the 24-year-old will be competing against the Chelsea star for the trophy at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2021™. “I can’t believe this is really happening,” Rooarii told FIFA. “Every time I wake up it takes me a few seconds to realise I’m not still in a dream – I’m actually at the Club World Cup! It’s crazy! “We’re amateurs. We all have [day] jobs. We only found out over Christmas that this could be happening. It was a feeling of pure euphoria, to be going to the Club World Cup, to think that my name will be on the squad list along with Kante, Thiago Silva, Lukaku."

Seventh heaven was rapidly drenched by dread. Roonui worked full-time as a police officer. It was too late to put in for holidays. To exacerbate his predicament, he didn’t even have enough days of annual leave remaining. The only possible escape was to write a letter to Tahiti’s chief of police. And, as Roonui put it, “beg and pray”. “I was so, so scared,” said the striker. “I was trembling when I was writing the letter. I was so, so worried because of it was very late notice and I thought he would think football is a hobby and say no. I had sleepless nights. I was convinced he would say no. “But then he said, ‘It’s an honour to have a policeman play at the Club World Cup. You go. You represent all of the police officers here in Tahiti.’ I can’t explain how grateful I was. And here I am. I feel like a character in a comic-book story.”

Roonui, the nephew of AS Pirae coach Naea Bennett and grandson of Errol Bennett, two of the greatest players in French Polynesian history, did fantasise over a comic-book career as a footballer when he was a kid. Not for long, though. “When I was a little kid, my dream was to become a professional footballer,” he said. “I loved Ronaldo ‘Fenômeno’. I used to pretend I was him when I played with my friends. But when I got older I realised how difficult becoming a professional footballer would be coming from a small island where you don’t get so many opportunities. “I wanted to become a sports journalist, but I have to confess: I wasn’t very dedicated to my studies (laughs). So I was a missionary for two years in West Africa until 2019. Those were long days, from early morning to late at night, every day, studying scriptures, praying and preaching to people. It was a great experience. When that finished, I took the police exam and passed.”

Roonui quickly discovered combining apprehending villains and rippling nets isn’t easy. “I work one week on days and the next week on nights,” the striker explained. “When I’m on nights, I can’t practice with the team, so I have to train on my own. It’s quite hard to practice for a team sport like football on your own, but I go for runs, go to the gym and practice shooting.” Pirae will be hoping those solo sessions pay off and Rooarii’s shooting is on target on Thursday, when they attempt to scale a footballing Burj Khalifa by beating Al Jazira. “Al Jazira are a very good team,” he said. “They’re fully professional, they have excellent players with a lot of experience. My cousin keeps asking me to get an Al Jazira shirt. “For our fans it’s a dream, but we want to win. They are the favourites but this is football, anything can happen. Our coach has told us to play our own game, to not be intimidated. We want to pass the ball around and attack. “We’re from a small pacific island. You wouldn’t believe how huge this is for my country. Our people are very proud. This is an amazing opportunity to represent Tahiti in a World Cup. “One month ago we couldn’t have even imagined this was possible. We’re enjoying every moment of being here but we know we have a responsibility for the young kids in Tahiti, the future generations. In Tahitian culture, you have to be prepared to die on the pitch.”

Roonui has another goal in Abu Dhabi. “This last month has been crazy for me,” he said. “I’ve had so many messages of support from my family, friends. People have been shouting to my granddad on the street, ‘You’re grandson is going to the Club World Cup!’ It’s surreal. “I haven’t had time to do anything, to speak to anybody but this news has escaped nobody. Last week I received a message from a missionary I was with in Togo. I was emotional to get his message. He was so pleased for me, he wished me luck. And he said to me, ‘Please score a goal at the Club World Cup for me and for all the missionaries.’” Pirae diehards, Tahitians, Polynesians, the police force, missionaries: Roonui Tinirauarii is on a mission to make them all proud.