Tahiti’s remarkable journey from Temae Beach on the island of Moorea in 2006 to the 2015 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup final in Portugal is one of world football’s most extraordinary stories.
It’s fair to say that despite their fourth-place finish at the 2013 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup on home sand, Tiki Toa arrived in Espinho two years later, still flying under the radar.
However, that was no longer the case in the Bahamas in 2017, despite being drawn in the group of death alongside world number one Brazil, European champions Poland and the eighth-ranked Japan.
When the French Polynesians qualified for their maiden World Cup in Ravenna, Italy in 2011, their main goal was just to win a match, which they achieved by defeating Venezuela.
Tahitian goalkeeper Jonathan Torohia described the class of 2011 as “a group of friends in the neighbourhood” pulled together by their coach.
But in the coming years that group of friends developed into one of the world’s finest footballing teams, and after becoming the first Oceania side to qualify for a FIFA World Cup final, Tiki Toa were determined to keep building their legacy.
Tahiti’s results on the global stage were undeniably impressive, but it was their technique and style based on flair, aerial play, bicycle kicks and flying volleys that thrilled spectators and set them apart.
The French Polynesians didn’t just become one of the best teams in the world, they were also one of the most entertaining, capable of scoring spectacular goals with every player touching the ball, without the ball touching the sand.
And after proving in back-to-back tournaments that they were serious contenders, the Caribbean provided another stage for the OFC representatives to showcase their unique style and overall quality.
Tahiti took on Brazil, the world’s top-ranked beach soccer side, in their opening match in the Bahamas and the early signs weren’t good for the Pacific Islanders who slumped to a 4-1 defeat.
However, led by player-coach Teva Zavaroni, Tiki Toa dusted themselves off to bounce back with victories over Japan and Poland to progress to the knockout stages as group runners-up behind the South Americans.
After overcoming Paraguay 6-4 in the quarter-finals, the Tahitians faced Iran in a dramatic semi.
With a place in their second consecutive World Cup final on offer, the French Polynesians had to dig deep against the Asian side who took the lead midway through the second period.
But with only four-and-a-half minutes left on the clock, Tiki Toa skipper Naea Bennett sent a pinpoint cross towards Patrick Tepa who calmly slotted home to send the match into extra-time.
Neither side could find the net in the additional period, so the game went into a marathon penalty shoot-out that took 12 attempts before Raimoana Bennett’s conversion gave the Tahitians another shot at Word Cup glory.
Unfortunately, the mighty Brazilians proved a bridge too for Tiki Toa in a lopsided title decider; nevertheless the legacy left by the Tahitians, who set a stunning record of finishing in the top four in three consecutive FIFA World Cups, should not be underestimated.
Tiki Toa qualified for their fifth World Cup in a row after they won the OFC Beach Soccer Nations Cup which returned in 2019 after a six-year hiatus.
The French Polynesians finished the competition in Tahiti, which also featured Vanuatu, Tonga, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia, as undefeated champions.
However, as a clear sign of the strength and potential of beach soccer in Oceania, the tournament hosts were pushed all the way by the Solomon Islands in a thrilling title decider before edging past the brave Bilikiki 4-3 to secure their passage to the 2019 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Paraguay.
Coach Naea Bennett described his side’s opening World Cup group match against Italy as a “catastrophic” defeat that was too much to overcome as the Tahitians failed to make the knockout stages for the first time since 2011.
Despite victories over Mexico and Uruguay in their other two group matches Tahiti narrowly missed out on a spot in the quarter-finals on goal difference.
Bennett admitted the early exit in Paraguay was hard to take, but his team vowed to make amends as they looked forward to reaching the next World Cup scheduled to take place in Russia in 2021.
And based on their astonishing track record to date, who would bet against them.