The amplitude of the task facing Oceanian minnows Tahiti at the Confederations Cup in Brazil later this month was laid bare when coach Eddy Etaeta annnounced a 23-man squad containing 22 amateur players.
Faced with the might of African champions Nigeria, South American champions Uruguay and world and European champions Spain, against whom they have been drawn in Group B, Tahiti boast only one player — 33-year-old striker Marama Vahirua — who currently plays at professional level.
Tahiti’s victory in last year’s Oceania Cup of Nations earned them a place at the Confederations Cup, the quadrennial showcase that is contested by the world’s six reigning continental champions, as well as the host nation and the most recent World Cup winners.
This year’s lineup is completed by hosts Brazil, CONCACAF Gold Cup winners Mexico, Asian champions Japan, and Italy, who qualify by virtue of having lost to Spain in the final of the European Championship last year.
Vahirua plays for Greek Super League side Panthrakikos, having spent the bulk of his career in France with Nantes, OGC Nice, Lorient, AS Nancy-Lorraine and AS Monaco.
His finest hour came in May 2001 when he scored the goal against AS Saint-Etienne that gave Nantes their eighth Ligue 1 title; a strike that was closely followed by his trademark oar-stroke celebration, which he performed in homage to his Polynesian origins.
Admired for his technical assurance and eye for goal, Vahirua was even capped at under-21 level by then-France coach Raymond Domenech, but many of his Tahitian colleagues lead a modest life.
In an area of the world that has been severely affected by the global financial crisis, a third are without work.
Striker Samuel Hnanyine is a delivery man, who is often obliged to carry 50kg bags of flour. Defender Teheivarii Ludivion is a climber, specializing in work at altitude. Gilbert Meriel, one of the goalkeepers, is an auditor for the accountancy and consulting firm KPMG.
The international soccer equivalent of the butcher, baker and candlestick-maker, they will soon find themselves up against global superstars such as Neymar, Andres Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo.
Tahiti’s amateur contingent have been able to dedicate themselves exclusively to soccer for only two months, their leave having been paid for by the Tahitian Football Federation.
“In the history of football, we’re the first amateur footballers to participate in a big international competition,” Etaeta told reporters. “It’s an honor to represent amateurs, who make up 99 percent of players.”
Accustomed to playing in front of hundreds or even just tens of spectators, Tahiti’s players are steeling themselves to grace some of the giant stadiums that Brazil has either constructed or renovated in preparation for next year’s World Cup.
They tackle Nigeria in Belo Horizonte on June 17, face Spain in the newly reopened 78,000-seater Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on June 20, and then meet Uruguay in Recife on June 23.
Preparations for the trials ahead have included the innovative use of speakers broadcasting shouts and whistles from thousands of spectators during their matches.
The Confederations Cup is by far the biggest sporting event for which a national team from Tahiti has qualified.
The under-20 soccer team did reach the under-20 World Cup in Egypt in 2009, but they finished bottom of their four-team pool after conceding 21 unanswered goals in a group that coincidentally contained teams from Nigeria and Spain.
In another twist, Tahiti is currently preparing to host the biggest sporting event ever to visit the island, with the Beach Soccer World Cup set to take place there in September.