- Associated Press - Friday, June 21, 2013

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - Tahiti’s national soccer team is living large despite losing big.

The players from the tiny island in the South Pacific, a group of amateurs and one just professional, have caused a stir in the world of big-time soccer this week, winning over fans at the Confederations Cup and even living up to Brazil’s image of the “Beautiful Game.”

Tahiti didn’t beat world champion Spain on Thursday, in fact they lost 10-0 in one of the most lopsided games in international soccer history.

But in front of a massively partisan crowd at the landmark Maracana Stadium _ the same venue that will host next year’s World Cup final _ the Tahitians wowed the world for the second straight match with their willingness to compete despite the huge gap in ability between themselves and their opponents.

“I’m still in the stars,” said Tahiti goalkeeper Mikael Roche, the man in the net for the drubbing against Spain. “I will never forget what they (the crowd) did for us tonight. I want to thank them so much. It’s been incredible. Incredible.”

After two of their three matches at the Confederations Cup, a one-year-to-go dress rehearsal for the 2014 World Cup, Tahiti has been outscored 16-1. The team still has to face Uruguay on Sunday in Recife.

“In spite of the very lopsided competition … we got overwhelming support from the public in the Maracana Stadium,” Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta said, reveling in his status as coach of the world soccer’s new favorite underdog. “At the end we got a standing ovation. We got applause.”

Maybe more importantly, the Tahitians got some respect from Spain, the real-life World Cup champions.

“We are great fans, big fans of this team right now,” said Spain striker Fernando Torres, who scored four goals Thursday and later stopped along with his teammates to take pictures with the Tahitian players. “The result is not the main thing, the goals are not the main thing. We know the differences between the teams are massive.”

Tahiti is in French Polynesia and is referred to as an “overseas collectivity” of France in the CIA’s World Factbook. The tiny nation became the home of several mutineers from the HMS Bounty in the 1780s, and now has a population of about 275,000 people. It is still part of France, but enjoys a large degree of autonomy.

Very few of the locals are soccer fans, however. Instead, canoeing in Tahiti is a more popular activity than the planet’s most popular sport.

“To be honest, we are more well known here in Brazil than we are in Tahiti,” said Etaeta, who was a member of the 1994 Tahitian national team that was the first to play in a World Cup qualifying tournament. “This is a major frustration for me.”

Tahiti has already been eliminated from qualifying for next year’s World Cup. But Etaeta is already hoping his team’s showing so far in Brazil will be a spark that helps the team make it into subsequent tournaments.

“There’s another one in 2018 and in 2022, so we have to be realistic and work to develop professional players abroad,” the coach said. “I hope when we get back to Tahiti we’ll get more respect and support from our population.”

Tahiti’s national team plays in the Oceania Football Confederation, a regional soccer association devoid of its best team since 2006, when Australia left for the Asian federation in order to have better chances of qualifying for the World Cup.

Australia’s decision left New Zealand as the local powerhouse, and the Kiwis rode their new status all the way to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

It also left teams like Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands to compete against opponents such as Tahiti, Vanuatu and New Caledonia to be the No. 2 team in the region.

Last year, Tahiti rose to that challenge, beating New Caledonia in the Oceania Nations Cup final after New Zealand had earlier faltered.

That victory put 138th-ranked Tahiti in the Confederations Cup, an eight-team tournament for the best squads in the six FIFA regions, plus the hosts and World Cup champions.

So just by qualifying, Tahiti knew it would be in for some tough matches.

“It’s true that when you qualify and come to the Confederations Cup you immediately realize that it will be very difficult, almost impossible, to compete with such a high level of teams,” Etaeta said.

Tahiti was drawn to face Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria in Group B, meaning it avoided the Brazilians. But no matter which team Tahiti was going to face, everyone knew it was going to be tough at an event which soccer’s governing body refers to as a major tournament. It’s a first for Tahiti to be in such a competition.

Jonathan Tehau made sure the Tahitians were not completely embarrassed against Nigeria, heading in a corner kick early in the second half to briefly make it 3-1. To celebrate, the players pretended to be rowing a canoe together. Final score: Nigeria 6, Tahiti 1.

Four days later came Spain and the Maracana Stadium. And the adoring crowd.

Every time Tahiti controlled the ball, the crowd cheered. Every time Spain made a mistake, fans screamed in joy. Every time Tahiti attacked, they went absolutely wild.

“They did not stay behind. They came forward,” said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, the same man who led Spain to the 2010 World Cup title and the 2012 European Championship. “Every time they had the ball, they wanted to attack, and that’s a very lofty goal.”

The Tahitians only ended up with one shot on goal against Spain. It came in the 26th minute from Marama Vahirua, the team’s only professional player, currently at Greek club Panthrakikos.

At the time, the score was only 1-0.

But Spain made it 2-0 about five minutes later, and then three, then four, then five, and so on.

Despite the fact that the game turned into easily the biggest rout in Confederations Cup history, the people in the crowd stayed true to Tahiti, keeping up their rabid support with every touch of the ball.

Right up until, and even a little after, the final whistle.

“We lost 10-0 but we won the hearts of the Brazilian public,” Etaeta said, then turning from his native French into his best Portuguese to thank everyone. “So obrigado. Obrigado a todos.”

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