BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — The roar of “Tahiti” from 20,000 fans was as inspiring as it was unsettling for a group of footballers who struggle to attract 100 fans to their matches usually.
Never before had they played in front of such a big crowd. Never before had they even made it to an international football tournament watched by millions around the world.
But this was the tiny island paradise of Tahiti, more accustomed to the isolation of the Pacific Ocean, taking on Nigeria at the Confederations Cup.
The record books will show a 6-1 drubbing by Nigeria, the four-time World Cup participants ranked 31 in the FIFA rankings that have Tahiti at 138.
But in the Mineirao Stadium, Tahiti not only avoided humiliation by scoring that single goal but provided moments of menace to trouble the African champions.
It wasn’t even the team’s only professional player who scored the Tahiti goal.
Jonathan Tehau headed into the net from a corner early in the second half to reduce the team’s deficit to 3-1.
“It’s just huge,” Tehau said. “Already, coming here to Brazil, and then scoring the goal, I’m very happy for me, for my family, my friends and my teammates.”
“My first thoughts are for my family and my parents because they give me the opportunity to play football when I was a kid and today I scored,” he added.
The team then gave its rowing boat “Paddle” celebration its biggest audience yet, with 20,187 in the stadium, and millions watching on television including Tahiti’s government, which interrupted its weekly cabinet for the game.
“It’s not easy for us,” defender Nicolas Vallar said. “We needed to be supported by all the world and all the supporters in the stadium.
“It’s very, very exciting to hear ‘Tahiti, Tahiti’. It’s not usual because in Tahiti we usually play with 100 people and 20,000 today — that’s amazing.”
Even more amazing is the fact Tahiti landed among the eight teams at the 2014 World Cup warm-up event despite having just one professional player in the squad: striker Marama Vahirua
“We’ve shown the world there’s some real quality in Tahiti,” said Vahirua, who is currently at Greek club Panthrakikos.
“Just our presence here is a victory and it was fantastic to be adopted by the Brazilian public.”
The expectations were that Tahiti would be overawed but it managed to claim the first shot on goal after just two minutes, when defender Vincent Simon struck a low effort.
But a mix-up in the defence allowed Nigeria to go in front three minutes later.
A shot from Uwa Echiejile from 20 yards pinged off Alvin Tehau, and took a final deflection off Nicolas Vallar which wrong-footed goalkeeper Xavier Samin as the ball landed in the net.
A misplaced Tahiti pass allowed Nigeria to double its lead in the 10th, with Nnamdi Oduamadi beating two players before scoring.
Oduamadi was on target again in the 26th after Samin spilled Ahmed Musa’s cross.
Nigeria appeared to be taking the game too casually, missing a succession of chances.
And although there was never any threat of anything but a Nigeria victory, Tahiti showed adventure throughout, managing five shots.
The goal came in the 54th minute when Vahirua floated a corner in and Tehau rose above Efe Ambrose and headed in home at back post.
“They came out to fight like lions and it was a little bit difficult to up our game when you know you are playing against them,” Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said.
“You think everything is easy but they showed us they can play football and … I was worried because we had clear chances, 100 per cent chances and you need to bury the goals.”
But having avoided conceding again, Nigeria’s nerves were steadied in the 69th when goal-scorer Tehau turned the ball into his own net from Oduamadi’s cross.
Oduamadi completed his hat trick when he turned in the ball from close range from Brown Ideye’s cross and Echiejile slammed in the sixth in the 80th.
“The last 15 minutes were really difficult for us physically because we’ve never experienced such a tough game before,” Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta said.
It will get even tougher. Tahiti has Spain and Uruguay still to play.