In this age of world football television coverage and instant internet connection, it’s unusual to have a team of unknown quantity at a major competition, but that’s exactly how Tahiti appear to many football fans looking forward to this month’s Confederations Cup in Brazil.
In fairness, it’s hardly surprising that few are familiar with either Tahiti or their players – this is the first time Toa Aito have qualified for a major tournament; they have never reached the World Cup finals, and last year’s Oceania Nations Cup victory – which earned Tahiti a place at the Confederations Cup – was the first time the country has come out on top in their region.
The turnaround in fortunes has been incredibly quick: historically an also-ran in the Oceania Confederation, as recently as 2007 Tahiti failed to even qualify for the Nations Cup, faring only marginally better than minnows Tuvalu and the Cook Islands in the qualification process. The team’s future looked bleak, and even the most optimistic of Tahitians would have ruled out any major success in the foreseeable future. Credit must be given to the Fédération Tahitienne de Football, who recognised the need for change and have managed an impressively rapid rate of improvement.
Their efforts culminated in the hiring of Eddy Etaeta, an ex-Tahiti international as a player, as the country’s new manager in 2010. Etaeta, only 43 himself, has successfully blooded a new generation of youngsters – over half of the squad for the Confederations Cup are aged 24 and under. Many of these fresh faces came from the national under-20 team, which had reached the U-20 World Cup for the first time in Tahiti’s history in 2009.
Inevitably, for a nation of around 250,000, Etaeta’s squad is bereft of the kind of big names that Tahiti’s Group B rivals Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria possess, but the coach has been able to make one quality addition to his almost exclusively locally-based group. AS Nancy striker Marama Vahirua, born in the Tahitian capital Papeete, has finally linked up with his compatriots, having spent most of his career in France. Vahirua is set to make his international debut at the unusually ripe age of 33, but his vast experience at Ligue 1 level should prove beneficial for a Tahiti squad lacking in knowledge of European playing styles.
His playing CV may be significantly more impressive than his team-mates’, but Etaeta insists there will be no favourable treatment in the dressing room: “We don’t have any key players. We have always put the spotlight on the bigger picture: the state of mind and being a group. For me, the star is the whole team.” Nevertheless, Vahirua looks like the side’s best bet for a goal at the finals.
A cursory glance at the remainder of Etaeta’s squad list returns the oddity of no fewer than four players with the same surname: brothers Alvin, Lorenzo and Jonathan Tehau will all be competing for midfield places, while their cousin Teaonui has recently made the breakthrough to the senior side as a promising forward. Says Alvin, “I’m very proud to play in the national team with my family. We are a unit…I think it helps the team as a whole.”
Captain Nicholas Vallar also boasts professional experience, having spent three years at Montpellier; after spells at lower-league clubs in France and Portugal, the 29-year-old returned home in 2009 to play for AS Dragon, Tahiti’s current league champions. Striker Steevy Chong-Hue, of mixed Chinese-Tahitian heritage, similarly made the jump to Europe – joining Belgium’s BX Brussels, recently taken over by Vincent Kompany – before re-signing for AS Dragon.
With the 2012 Nations Cup final Tahiti’s last competitive fixture, Etaeta set up a game in February of this year against Australian outfit Sydney FC, which the A-League franchise comfortably won 4-0. A more recent tour of Chile yielded wins over Universidad de Chile’s under-20 team and second tier Deportes Magallanes, but in their last warm-up game Tahiti were thrashed 7-0 by Chile’s under-20 side.
Results haven’t exactly been reassuring ahead of the country’s biggest test yet, then, and even the two victories are of doubtful use: the gulf in class between the Chilean second division and world champions Spain is wider than Etaeta’s grin will be if Tahiti pull off an upset or two later this month. However, the Fédération Tahitienne de Football have defended the decision to play low-key opposition, citing the need to “build confidence for the future”. Etaeta concurs: “We’re not in denial – we know 8-10 weeks of professional training isn’t going to make up for the 10 years of professionalism that separates us from Spain or Uruguay.”
However, the mild confidence-building of those wins will surely have been ruined by the 7-0 hammering which followed. Etaeta will have a huge job on his hands if he is to convince his players they are capable of taking on Xavi, Iniesta and co, and the flight to Brazil the day after the under-20 defeat was no doubt in more sombre spirits than is healthy given the size of the task ahead.
And the team’s spirit will have been further damaged by Tahiti’s disastrous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign which ended in elimination in March – with Toa Aito having just one win and two goals to their name after six games. Upsets in Brazil, then, are unlikely, but at least Etaeta is realistic in his targets for the upcoming tournament: “to not concede any goals in a half would be impressive in itself. But above all, to score a goal would be a huge achievement.” That seems reasonable, and you have to hope the minnows have a Hollywood ending to a story no-one could have dreamt up a year ago.
Click on Dan’s name above to follow him on Twitter
Nigeria’s win at this year’s AFCON came as a huge shock to many football pundits; those, here, in Africa especially. To tell you the truth, for me, the effects of the shock still haven’t worn off and with only days left to start of the Confed Cup, many still maintain their doubts about this team. There have been times where I’ve actually had to remind myself that they are the reigning African champions – too many times, in fact – and for good reason too. I mean let’s not even go into some of the serious issues. For the sake of all involved, let’s not touch on the ongoing Azonto-Alingo war for instance. Forget all that.
Going into the tournament, there were problems. Wait… there have always been problems with the Nigerian national team and indeed with their national association, the NFF. Only last week, critics questioned why the team is camping in North America when they have crucial World cup qualifiers coming up in East Africa.
Infighting, unpaid bonuses, corruption and power struggles among the football hierarchy count as some of the chief reasons why the fortunes of the Super Eagles have been on a downward spiral. They were once a superpower on the continent yet they are fast becoming a favourite for most of the continent’s whipping boys. The days where teams feared to play the Super Eagles have long gone. Yes, they may have won the 2013 AFCON but, truth is, nothing has changed. The fact that they sit at the top of the World Cup Qualifying Group F, 2 points above less fancied Malawi, gives credence to this assertion. A draw against the flames of Namibia in their penultimate game has set-up a mouth-watering decider against Malawi.
But, to be fair, the African football landscape has been changing over the years. There are no clear cut superpowers. Zambia came from nowhere and won the 2012 AFCON. As a matter of fact they lie, currently, one point ahead of four-time African Champions, Ghana, in their world cup qualifying group. Cote d’Ivoire with all the superstars has failed woefully in its bid to dominate African football. Even record seven-time champions Egypt were not at this year’s tournament. So it will be truly unfair to be overly critical of Nigeria.
But then again, their systemic problems make it a little too hard not apportion any blame to them. The problems followed them into the tournament and well after it. There have been emergency meetings held to discuss the future of Head Coach Stephen Keshi. Indeed Keshi’s torrid affair with the Nigerian FA is well documented. It is believed he was lined up for the sack even before he was scheduled to play Cote d’ivoire in the quarters of AFCON 2013. Keshi in the press conference after winning the trophy did not deny these rumours and even sought to imply that he had done his last bit with the team. He did announce his resignation a day after and it is believed he only stayed on after being persuaded by some “OGAs-at –the top” in Nigeria to rescind his decision.
Honestly, I believe Keshi has been good for Nigerian football. A real hard man, often regarded as a villain, who comes off as abrasive half the time, and yes, even pompous. Perhaps, an ability to chew gum aside (although, not pretty), it’s his self assuredness that is his biggest asset. This, he is able to transfer onto his teams. He delivered Togo’s first ever World Cup appearance, although he was replaced for the tournament by Germany’s Kofi Wayo, Otto Pfister. That team was very much Keshi’s and despite an embarrassing player bonus crisis, it wasn’t a disastrous display on the field.
He has brought back some sanity to the Super Eagles. They are far from being the world force that we had known them to be but at least, now, there is some continuity. Most of the old guard got phased out. Players like Martins, West Brom’s Peter Odemwingie, and Yobo are some of the big names who have found themselves on the sidelines. Team captain Yobo, who doesn’t make the Confed squad list, was with the team in South Africa but he played little part after losing his place to 19year old Chelsea loanee Kenneth Omeruo. Disruptive elements like Odemwingie who had a spat with Keshi and then later Yobo have altogether been overlooked by Keshi establishing a sense of unity and togetherness in the team, another plus for the big man. The Super Eagles had just two outfield-players older than 25 in their 2013 AFCON squad. There are also 9 changes to the team with 4 debutants. Perhaps a sign of where the team is at the moment.
The new confidence instilled in the new boys has also been repaid with Sunday Mba for instance netting the winning goal to clinch the trophy. But without question, their biggest player is Chelsea’s Mikel Obi, (with every indication being that he is considered as the future of the team). Everything is built around him and if you stop Mikel playing (which I don’t think is difficult), not much goes on. The striking pair of Ideye Brown and Emenike was a fearsome one, (from the shape of their heads alone) and should trouble many a defence. However during the AFCON it was more or less a 3-man attack with Victor Moses employed on predominantly the right wing alongside joint top scorer Emenike and Brown. With both him and Emenike absent due to injury, the team is lacking some real cutting edge and international top level experience. Others to watch are Ahmed Musa, double winner with CSKA Moscow this season and talented midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, also a cup winner with Lazio.
Keshi, himself a member of Nigeria’s 1994 dream team knows what it takes to build another side like that one that brought so much joy to many in Africa. He has another member of that team to count on in Daniel Amokachi as his right hand man. This team isn’t the most talented Nigerian side, but they have a lot of heart and will play to once again silence their critics. It’s quite a good mix of talent and experience, the old and the new. Experienced guys like Victor Enyeama, Efe Ambrose and Kalu Uche should help push the team up. It will be an all new experience for most of the other guys in the team, though. The likes of Nnamdi Odumandi, Godfrey Oboabona and Fegor Ogude must sell themselves on one of the biggest stages in world football (The Confederations Cup). A lot of African hope and pride will be riding with this team. It is hoped that they can do well, a little Alingo come June 30th won’t be bad for my weight at all. Yes I’m on a diet, so…?
Against World champions Spain, however, not much is expected. But at worst a draw against Uruguay who aren’t at their best currently and a win over Haiti (who I don’t even consider a Bowling nation let alone a football one) should see them through to the next round. Just pray that Suarez-led Uruguay attack does not bite. To be safe, just wear some padding.
I have a simple plea to the Nigerian Football Federation, from an African perspective: kindly keep your usual administrative nonsense and inefficiencies away from this team for the next month or so…at least until after the tournament. It can be, unfortunately and expectedly, from then on, business as usual.
Click on Papa’s name above to follow him on Twitter