(Photo Credit OFC Media via Phototek)
Naea Bennett is a ‘hero’ in Tahiti. The quiet, softly spoken Bennett has done it all in football, having represented and coached his country in football and Beach Soccer, where he was instrumental in helping this small Pacific Island nation reach two FIFA World Cup finals. He also briefly dabbled as a politician becoming the Sports Minister for just over a year in 2022.
Bennett is the son of Tahiti football legend Erroll Bennett who was once on the books of French Ligue 1 side PSG, and named the best Tahitian player of the 20th century. He was always destined to play football.
“Yes, of course, when I was born. I don’t remember I didn’t have a ball in my feet. I was always with my father when he goes to training. So for me, I would say it was natural that I will play football so thank you to him to have carried me with him every training and everywhere he played,” Bennett said.
Beach Soccer exploded in the country when Tahiti was selected as host nation for the 2013 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. It was an occasion Bennett will never forget.
“ Oh, the memories. Today, I saw the picture of the World Cup here and the entirety that we hosted and a lot of memories came in my mind. But we are very happy and proud for the legacy that we give to this new generation. And this morning, I told them be behind on with the legacy that we’re giving to you and make more than what we did,” Bennett reflected.
In 2013 Tahiti hosted the Beach Soccer World Cup and made it through to the semi-finals where they lost 5-3 to Russia. But it was the third and fourth place playoff against Brazil that produced one of the best Beach Soccer matches of all time.
“Yes, for me. It’s the best matches I played in my career. We had the public who was here, every game a good support from our country. And we’re a good gift we gave to them to play against Brazil in the third place, maybe but it was the final for us. And the game was incredible. 7-7 and at the end we lost on penalties but for us we win because the crowd and everybody was happy with the tournament. And we think we did a good job. We’re here and we promote Beach Soccer in our country now.”
Bennett was player coach when Tahiti made the 2015 and 2017 World Cup finals, losing 5-3 to Portugal and 6-0 to Brazil. He retired from the national team after the 2017 final but still plays for his club side.
Bennett works for the Fédération Tahitienne de Football as the President’s advisor, and this week he is the ground announcer at the OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup. He is perfectly placed to explain what Beach Soccer success has done for the country?
“Yeah, a lot of people. When you were talking to them about football, they said, Oh no, I don’t really like football. But when they came and see beach soccer, there was Oh, okay. I like football. This is football. I like football. And a lot of people came back to see the regular football because they know that some players play both.”
Bennett is a deeply religious man and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He refused to play on Sundays throughout his football career and it meant he was unable to play in the 2015 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup final.
“For me it wasn’t difficult because from when I was born, I used to not to play because the Sunday is very holy for me. And it was a personal decision. It’s about me and the covenant I made with God. So it wasn’t hard for me but I know that some of the people who didn’t know me and my beliefs thought it was very bad. But I don’t care about what they were talking about because my teammates they already know that I will respect the Sunday and they didn’t even try to make me play because they knew already that I won’t play any way on Sunday.”
Bennett would love to see the success created in Tahiti be replicated in other Pacific countries, knowing more competitive opposition in Oceania would only help Tahiti when it comes to playing the best teams in the world.
“Yeah my wish for Tahiti and for Oceania is to have all of the Oceania countries to be part of this game. I know in 2010 I didn’t really want to play Beach Soccer but as soon as I try now I adopted it so I will help if they need me to give some advice with our experience. I will be happy to help because even if Tahiti is one of the best team in the Pacific, we need to have a lot of competitive matches. We have to travel in Europe or in America, but if we call play within our own territory in Oceania, we will be very happy,”