Sunday, 1:30 pm. I walk up the dirt track that leads to Moorea's answer to Old Trafford: Maharepa's Orova'u stadium, aka the Theatre of Mango Trees. This is my first assignment as Pseuds' Corner's South Pacific correspondent and the three lovely local girls selling tickets at the top of the lane will be the first real test of my brand new accreditation.
- "600 francs, please."*
- "Ia ora na, journalists get in for free, right?"
She shakes her head.
- "But I work for an international sports web site with a global readership."
She holds out her hand expectantly. I turn on the charm.
- "I'm writing a report on today's game, it'll be great for the promotion of Tahitian football."
-"600 francs, please."
Maybe we should print official cards or plastic badges, that always impresses the girls. I hand over my six pieces, she gives me a ticket, a cold can of soda, and a pearly-white smile. When I emerge on the plateau, I am suddenly breathless. Nothing to do with the steepness of the slope, it's the sheer magnificence of the landscape that takes my breath away. Every time.
Moorea's volcanic cliffs tower above the stadium's single stand. Thin wisps of white cloud cling on lazily to the dark pillars of basalt. Everywhere, the lush vegetation sparkles with a fresh polish, bestowed by last night's heavy tropical rain. The pitch also has several shades of green, but in sharp contrast with its surroundings, it is nearly flat and does not have any trees growing on it. The stand can hold a couple of hundred people and is fairly packed. Other spectators are scattered along the touchlines, sitting in the shade of mango trees, or watching from the back of pick-up trucks parked behind the goals. No flags or flares, but plenty of flip-flops and flora, as Tahitian ladies love to wear a crown of flowers on Sundays. If the atmosphere was anymore relaxed, we'd all be sound asleep.
Today, Maharepa host Pihaena in a League of Moorea play-off clash. The real match won't start for a while, but the reserves game is on. The second half is just getting underway as I walk around the pitch, saying my hellos to the spectators and substitutes that I know. Pihaena Va'a is my new rowing club, and I have enjoyed a few kickabout sessions with some of the players here, until I realised chasing 17 year old lads down the wing was absolutely pointless and I decided to switch to rowing for good. I am not much better at it, but at least I get to do it sitting down. And speaking of sitting down, I join my friend Metua behind the goal.
- "Ia ora na, Offside, you've come to see St-Étienne play Toulouse?"
He is referring to the teams' jerseys: the purple of Pihaena and Maharepa's green. Tahitian people love their football. Recently, satellite dishes have brought the international game into many a home and local connoisseurs will eloquently discuss Lyon's lack of an efficient striker or Chelsea's famous midfield diamond formation. Metua informs me that we're up 1-0, but he has barely finished his sentence when Pihaena's goalkeeper does a superb Paul-Robinson-against-Croatia impression to a chorus of laughter from both sets of supporters. All square. As I said, the pitch is nearly flat.
Metua's 17-year-old son, Heiva (yes, the one who's too fast for me), plays centre forward for Pihaena. A sizable section of his dad's fisherman income has gone into a flashy pair of bright-red boots. Heiva repays him by firing a stinging 20-yard free-kick towards the bottom corner. The keeper saves but Bill scores from the rebound. 2-1 to Pihaena and Metua's smile is well worth the price of those boots. The rest of the second half is lost on me as we immerse ourselves in a conversation that meanders in and out of vital topics such as fishing, the weather, and the upcoming canoe race next weekend. Maharepa eventually equalise from a corner kick and the game ends on a logical 2-2 scoreline.
During the interval between the two games, kids invade the pitch and start kicking a ball around like they do all over the world. I make my way to the dugout to say hello to Richard, the Pihaena reserves coach. I ask him for his analysis of the game.
-"I switched them from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 when we got the lead, but we couldn't hold on. We're not very good at defending set pieces. We'll have to work on that in training."
He doesn't care much about the result, since the reserves follow the first team around and play the same fixtures, play-off or play-down, regardless of how well they do themselves. Their league table is fairly meaningless and their position won't get them promoted nor relegated as Moorea only has one level of football. Richard is more concerned about instilling a little discipline in the young lads and getting them to show up for training regularly, and on time, a concept that can be difficult to grasp for some of the local boys. He proudly tells me about how he's dealt with the more troublesome elements in his squad.
-"At least now they don't smoke pakalolo during training and I also make sure they don't have a joint before a game. Otherwise, they spend the second half gazing at the landscape. Not much I can do once the game is over, but that's a start."
As the real game gets underway, I sit with Richard and Mario, old wise head and midfield anchor of the reserves team. I ask them to explain to me how Tahitian football is organised. The league of Moorea has 8 teams, who play each other home and away. After that, the top four go into a play-off (another set of home and away games), the bottom four into a play-down. The champions get to play the following season in the league of Tahiti, the bottom team gets to play the following season with the shame.
There are also two cup competitions. La Coupe de Polynésie is contested by all Polynesian clubs, from 118 islands scattered over a maritime area roughly the size of western Europe. A logistical nightmare, the winner of which gets into the Champions League. No, not that one. The one in which champions from the other countries of Oceania meet: Fiji, Vanuatu, the Salomon Islands, New Zealand, etc. Then, there is la Coupe de Tahiti, whose winner qualifies for an early round of la Coupe de France and gets to travel to France to get knocked out by a fourth division side.
Meanwhile, as we chat, we're missing a good game. Plenty at stake here: if Maharepa win, they could clinch the title with three games to spare. Pihaena must win to they keep their title hopes alive but will still have to rely on kind results elsewhere. Consequently, tackles are flying thick and fast. The technical level isn't great but both teams are producing commendable efforts to keep the ball on the deck, and the fact that the center circle is waterlogged from last night's rain forces some intriguing wing play. There is some gambeta going on but the high grass and uneven surface are not helping. A couple of Zidane roulettes nearly come off and a lovely attempt at a Cruijff turn ends up with both players tangled up on all fours by the corner flag. So, nil-nil at half-time, and we can resume our conversation.
I ask Richard where the next Tahitian football star is to be found. He grimaces and tells me he doesn't see it happening any time soon. Only a couple of local players have ever made it to the top flight in France. The latest being Marama Vahirua, aka the Tahitian Maradona, an attacking midfielder who was scouted by Nantes and is currently helping OGC Nice in their relegation battle. He is famous in France for celebrating every one of his goals by going down on one knee and miming a paddle stroke in tribute to his oceanic homeland.
Richard bemoans the lack of infrastructure, discipline and proper coaching holding back Tahitian football. But above all, he cites the lack of mental toughness as the main reason why so few young players break through. They have it too easy, here. Vahirua left Tahiti and his family for Nantes when he was thirteen. Can you imagine what it's like for a kid from the islands to have to get up at 6 to attend training in Brittany in the heart of winter? And being pitted against kids from the rough suburbs of French cities for whom a successful football career is a ticket out of hell? It takes a special kind of mindset. Richard goes on to tell me about this young lad from Bora Bora who was scouted last year by French Top 14 rugby outfit Toulon. He was offered a contract on a plate but turned it down, and shunned the opportunity to play alongside Tama Umaga because he couldn't bring himself to leave his island paradise. Richard shakes his head.
-"He has amazing potential but he doesn't even know it."
Back on the pitch, the second half starts with a bang. Actually, make that two bangs. Pihaena open the scoring after an intricate move down the right wing is crisply converted by a low drive from the edge of the area. Maharepa immediately equalise through a superb, 25-yard dipping free-kick that leaves the Pihaena goalkeeper motionless. 1-1, and that's the way it finished. Maharepa are now in a great position to win the title. Pihaena have lost all hope for this season but will take some pride from having held the future champions to a draw on their home patch.
I suppose I could have told you more about the details of the game if I hadn't so unprofessionally gotten side-tracked into idle conversation and gobsmacked contemplation of the landscape. I also realise that this is a very inadequate attempt at evaluating the state of Tahitian football at grassroots level. But I will tell you one thing. From the time I got there until the end of the second match, the grass on the pitch had easily grown half an inch.
* One euro is worth 119.33 Pacific Francs. You work it out.