The game of beach soccer has enjoyed incredible growth and popularity in French Polynesia during the past decade thanks to the extraordinary achievements of Tiki Toa, our region’s most successful team on the global stage.
During this period the top Tahitian players on the sand have become bona-fide superstars not only across their home nation of just 190,000 citizens but also the entire beach soccer world.
Flying Oceania’s flag, Tahiti have grown into a global powerhouse of the sport, reaching two FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup finals and a semi-final since 2013, when they also hosted the sport’s showpiece event.
Tiki Toa’s rapid rise to global fame is even more remarkable considering their lack of exposure to top international beach soccer before their breakthrough qualification to the 2011 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Ravenna, Italy.
In fact, the Tahitians’ first international beach soccer match was played only five years earlier during the inaugural 2006 OFC Beach Soccer Championship hosted by the French Polynesians.
Today, the francophone Pacific Island nation boasts two beach soccer leagues as well as a women’s competition with six dedicated pitches scattered across the country.
The seeds of this stunning success were sown during Oceania’s maiden international competition in 2006 at Temae Beach on the island of Moorea, where Tiki Toa’s journey began with an 8-1 win over the Cook Islands during the opening day of the competition.
And despite failing to qualify for the 2006 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup after finishing third behind Oceania Champions Solomon Islands and runners-up Vanuatu, that tournament provided the sport in Tahiti with a launching pad that soon propelled them to global heights.
With the first three regional championships dominated by the Solomon Islands, Tiki Toa’s breakthrough Oceania title had to wait until 2011, fittingly in front of their home fans in Papeete, where they edged past the defending champions 4-3 in a thrilling title decider to secure their passage to Italy.
The 2011 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup was a steep learning curve for the French Polynesians who were drawn in Group C against eventual winners Russia, plus Nigeria and Venezuela.
However, the OFC representatives left Ravenna with their heads held high after finishing third in the pool and picking up their first World Cup points in the process thanks to a 5-2 win over Venezuela.
Fast forward two years to 2013, which marked the first significant global milestone in the history of Tahitian and Oceanian beach soccer, with French Polynesia staging a hugely successful Beach Soccer World Cup, the first ever FIFA event in our region.
It was a truly memorable tournament for Tahiti both on and off the sand, as Tiki Toa rose to the occasion to reach the semi-finals in front of their adoring fans to come of age only seven years after their first international match.
The tournament provided overnight fame to Tahiti’s beach soccer stars, including the winner of the tournament’s adidas Bronze Ball Raimana Li Fung Kuee, who became instantly recognisable in their homeland.
But the best was yet to come for Tiki Toa and two years later in Portugal the Tahitians went one better marching all the way to the 2015 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup final.
After topping their group that included two-time defending champions Russia, Paraguay, and Madagascar, the Tahitians overcame Iran 5-4 in a thriller in the quarter-finals before an even more nerve-wrecking penalty shoot-out semi-final win over 2008 runners-up Italy.
Just a single win away from World Cup glory, Tiki Toa pushed hosts Portugal all the way before narrowly going down 5-3 in the title decider.
Li Fung Kuee’s 2013 achievement was followed by Heimanu Taiarui winning the adidas Golden Ball, while Jonathan Torohia was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper.
After coming so close to one of football’s greatest fairytales, the golden generation of Tahitian beach soccer, which has earned plenty of plaudits for its quality both on and off-field, was ready again two years later to conquer that final frontier at the 2017 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in the Bahamas.
To be continued