BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — The roar of “Tahiti” from 20,000 fans was as inspiring as it was unsettling for a group of footballers who usually struggle to attract 100 fans to their matches.
Never before had they played in front of such a big crowd. Never before had they even made it to an international soccer tournament watched by millions around the world.
The tiny island paradise of Tahiti, more accustomed to the isolation of the Pacific Ocean, was 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 also provided moments of menace to trouble the African champions.
It wasn’t even the team’s only professional player who scored the goal. Jonathan Tehau headed into the net from a corner early in the second half to reduce the team’s deficit to 3-1.
The team then gave its celebration – where it mimics paddling a rowboat – its biggest audience yet, with 20,187 in the stadium and millions watching on TV including Tahiti’s government, which interrupted its weekly Cabinet meeting 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.’”
“We’ve shown the world there’s some real quality in Tahiti,” said Marama Vahirua, the only professional on Tahiti’s team. “Just our presence here is a victory and it was fantastic to be adopted by the Brazilian public.”
Tehau’s elation was short-lived, however. Shortly after scoring, he netted an own-goal.
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.
Nigeria appeared to be taking the game too casually, missing a succession of chances.
Though there was never any threat of anything but a Nigeria victory, Tahiti showed adventure throughout, managing five shots.
“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 percent chances and you need to bury the goals.”
Nnamdi Oduamadi scored a hat-trick for African champion Nigeria, while Uwa Echiejile added the other two.
“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.