underdog

Posted on September 24, 2009
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From The Guardian

The Fifa Under-20 World Cup, which gets under way this week in Egypt, likes to present itself as a discoverer of future international superstars. The likes of Diego Maradona, Luís Figo, Ronaldinho, Michael Essien and Lionel Messi all came to global prominence in this competition.

It is against this lustrous backdrop that a group of young men from Tahiti are taking an extraordinary bow. They are the first team from one of Oceania’s tiny island nations to ever qualify for the finals of a major tournament. They are a sporting miracle.

The country has no great footballing heritage of which to speak. Tahiti sit 189th in the latest Fifa rankings, tucked in between Djibouti and St Lucia. There are only 9,796 registered players in the whole place (to put that into perspective, the island is a semi-autonomous territory of France, which has not far off two million).

On Friday night in Cairo they will emerge shoulder-to-shoulder with the team from Spain (another point of perspective: the population of Tahiti is roughly the equivalent of Albacete). They know they might be embarrassed – that the world expects them to look like novices compared to the highly tutored opponents from one of Europe’s great production lines. They realise they are likely to be patronised or shown sympathy. But the beauty of sport is in that wafer-thin possibility that they will be celebrated.

It has been an amazing journey so far for the Tahitians. They qualified at the expense of New Zealand, who ought to have a monopoly on the routine Oceania berth doled out for all Fifa competitions since Australia defected to join the Asian confederation. Tahiti owe a considerable amount to the inspiration of their formidable coach, Lionel Charbonnier, an unused goalkeeper in the France squad during their World Cup triumph in 1998, who has a big heart and unquenchable commitment.

He admits people thought he was barmy to take on such a job, but the idea of giving something back to the amateur game he came from struck a chord. “The players have met our expectations by 200%,” he says. “They’re happy we treat them like professionals. Some of them are still quite wide-eyed, but most of them are starting to look more serious and adopting a warrior’s stare.”

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