Tiny country will compete in Brazil next summer
17 July ~ While all eyes were on Poland and Ukraine last month, the most incredible thing happened on the other side of the world: Tahiti made it through to the next Confederations Cup, to be held in Brazil next June. Ranked 179th in the world and with a striker who spent last season trying to get a break in the Belgian third division, Tahiti were the unlikely winners of the latest Oceania Nations Cup. Unlikely, because Australia and New Zealand have bossed the world's smallest confederation for as long as anyone can remember.
Australia have moved on to bigger things in Asia, while New Zealand's Olympic preparations may have proved a distraction for the team that was threatening to become FIFA's most over-represented nation. The All Whites famously went through the 2010 World Cup as the only unbeaten side, but they almost looked out of their depth against Oceania's small fry.
While Tahiti and New Caledonia were busy racking up nine-goal wins in their first-round group, New Zealand limped to victory against Fiji and Papua New Guinea and were held to a 1-1 draw by host nation, the Solomon Islands. Their biggest shock came in the semi-finals, a 2-0 loss to New Caledonia that All Whites coach Ricki Herbert described as “probably the worst moment” he has had in charge of the side: “It's a real travesty really and I've probably never been this disappointed before.”
Tahiti's 1-0 win over New Caledonia in the final gave them their first ever title and elevates them on to the Confederation Cup's rather exclusive guest list: Spain, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, Uruguay, Japan and the best team from Africa. While Italy deputise for world champions Spain, and Brazil are hosts, all the others countries have booked their spot by the standard route - winning their confederation's major title.
The French-speaking Pacific nation whose population would fit inside the combined ticketed areas of the Camp Nou and Bernabeu could now find themselves lining up against the world champions, whose players fill those stadiums every week.
Oceania have a strong record in the Confederations Cup, thanks to Australia. But the Socceroos still have nightmares about their 6-0 defeat in the 1997 final against Brazil. While the Tahitians are upbeat their achievement, it's not hard to imagine this team of bank tellers, teachers and private sector employees taking a worse pounding.
FIFA have introduced goal-line technology. An avalanche of goals in Brazil next year might lead to calls for the mercy rule to be next. Or at least get them thinking about the future of their weakest confederation. Jack Kerr