Even after falling to a tournament-record 10-0 loss to world champion Spain at the Confederations Cup, Tahiti’s soccer team left the field feeling like heroes.
The 138th-ranked Pacific islanders were cheered from start to finish in the mismatch by a crowd of almost 72,000 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium yesterday, as four goals from Fernando Torres and three from David Villa helped Spain rack up the biggest victory margin in the competition’s nine editions.
“I’m still in the stars,” Tahiti goalkeeper Mikael Roche, a 30-year-old qualified sports teacher, told reporters. “The Brazilian crowd has been such a wonderful crowd, they’ve been cheering for us although we’re just small players, a small team. I’ll never forget what they did for us.”
A Tahiti squad containing only one professional player had booked its spot at the eight-nation tournament, a warm-up event for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, by winning last year’s Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup.
Spain, which successfully defended its European Championship title last year after securing its first World Cup in 2010, responded to coach Vicente del Bosque’s pre-match request to show respect to Tahiti by not letting up even after taking a 4-0 halftime lead.
“We focused like we were playing a final,” said striker Torres, who also missed a second-half penalty kick. “Spain have shown respect from the first minute to the last minute and that’s important.”
The result lifted Spain atop Group B with six points from two matches, although it’s not yet guaranteed a semifinal spot. Uruguay beat Nigeria 2-1 last night to join the African team on three points ahead of the final round of games in two days. Host nation Brazil and Italy have already secured a berth in the final four and meet tomorrow to decide the Group A winner.
Tahiti lost 6-1 to Nigeria in its competition opener on June 17 and Spain’s players were repeatedly asked in the leadup to yesterday’s match how many goals they expected to score. The 10-0 scoreline set a record for the biggest victory margin at a senior FIFA tournament, eclipsing Hungary’s 10-1 thrashing of El Salvador at the 1982 World Cup.
After giving the Spanish players necklaces and emblems before the game, the Tahitians gifted them the ball at the kick off as striker Marama Vahirua, who plays professionally for Greek team Panthrakikos, blasted the ball into touch.
Spain, which made 10 changes from its 2-1 victory against Uruguay on June 16, scored within five minutes when Torres beat Roche at his near post. The crowd willed Tahiti on, cheering every touch, and it took 31 minutes before Spain got its second goal through David Silva. Torres and Villa added a goal each before half time.
“We talked as we did before the game in a very serious manner,” Del Bosque said about the mood in the locker room at the interval. “We were trying to get the best result possible, there’s was no other way. In sports you have to do your best.”
Villa and Torres grabbed their hat tricks within 20 minutes of the restart, and such was Spain’s dominance that Villa’s teammates didn’t bother to join him in celebration for his third goal after 64 minutes.
Roche pounded his fists into the turf when a mistake allowed Juan Mata to score Spain’s eighth goal two minutes later. The goalkeeper’s reaction earned approval from the crowd, which used chants usually dedicated for Brazilian teams in support of the Tahitians.
“It’s astounding what’s happened to us in Brazil,” said Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta, who used artificial crowd noise to prepare his team for the tournament. “In spite of the lopsided score and the numbers of goals we conceded, every minute we had an overwhelming support from the public in the Maracana.”
The loudest cheer came in the 77th minute when Torres, who cost English club Chelsea a U.K.-record transfer fee of 50 million pounds (77.5 million) in 2011, missed a penalty kick. He found the net a minute later before Silva completed the rout.
At the end of the match, Tahiti’s players formed a guard of honor for the victors before raising their arms aloft and taking one final ovation from the crowd. They then posed for photos with the Spanish players after the game.
“I’m a Tahiti supporter now,” Torres said. “We’ve spent some time with them and you can only admire the spirit they showed.”