When the Tahiti national soccer team scored a single goal in its 6–1 loss to Nigeria at the 2013 Confederations Cup, the team tweeted, “WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!!!!” Fans from around the world quickly fell in love with the nation's enthusiastic celebrations and underdog story.
Now, the country has once again found itself in the spotlight, except this time it’s with the beach soccer team. And this time it is actually good.
Since its formal founding in 1992, beach soccer has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world. The game, which is divided into three 12-minute periods, is played five a side—including a goalie—on a 35- to 37-meter by 26- to 28-meter sand court. In a typical match, there is relatively limited passing, and the ball is often in the air, a setup that demands well-honed technical skills and results in higher scoring than a traditional soccer game.
As of Thursday morning, Tahiti had won all of its matches at the 2015 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, including a 7–6 victory over two-time reigning champions Russia on Tuesday, earning a place in the quarterfinals. After an unprecedented semifinal appearance in 2013, when it became the first Pacific Islands nation to make it to the knockout stage of a FIFA tournament, Tahiti entered this year’s World Cup ranked 33 out of almost 100 international men’s teams. It's a remarkable statistic for a team pulling from a population of 280,000 and a country whose national sport is canoeing.
Tahiti’s beach squad is even more notable when you look further at the track record of its grass counterpart. Although the grass team has had a good deal of success against small nations (see the team’s recent 30–0 victory over Micronesia), Tahiti’s team—ranked 188 out of 209 FIFA member nations—pales in comparison to other soccer powers, as evidenced by its 10–0 loss to Spain in that 2013 Confederations Cup.
So why is Tahiti so successful on the sand when it has never even qualified for the grass World Cup?
Tahiti’s rise to beach soccer stardom can be explained by several factors besides its year-round warm weather.
First, Tahiti caught on quick to the trend. While the island country has had a beach team for most of the time the sport has formally existed, it only started its grass program in 1989, years behind the rest of the world. In addition, in 2013, Tahiti hosted the beach tournament, which increased local enthusiasm for the game.
The beach players also have more international experience. While the grass roster is made up of athletes who play part-time for Tahiti club teams and work the remainder of their days as accountants, teachers, or mountain/coconut tree climbers, at least five of the 14 beach competitors play for beach clubs outside of Tahiti such as FC Barcelona.
At the 2013 tournament, current Switzerland coach Angelo Schirinzi coached Tahiti’s beach squad. During his stay, he encouraged players to participate in Switzerland’s club league. Schirinzi, who is the author of a book about beach soccer, is considered an expert on the game. When he isn’t in Switzerland, he serves as a FIFA instructor, traveling around the world to deliver seminars and promote the sport.
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that the games are actually pretty different, so it’s possible for a country to be talented at one sport but not necessarily the other. According to soccer-training-methods.com, few grass pros use beach soccer for training because it doesn’t develop strong passing skills and, given the unlimited substitution rule, it prepares players for a different kind of fitness.
Although the beach players are big shots nowadays, they certainly haven’t lost the beloved Tiki Toa underdog allure. Raimana Li Fung Kuee, a star striker for Tahiti, recently told FIFA.com, “[T]he biggest asset our country has to offer [is] our charm and the smiles on our faces. It’s our trademark.”