BRASILIA, BRAZIL – Nigeria downed Tahiti in the Confederations Cup on Monday night in Belo Horizonte 6-1 behind a Nnamdi Oduamadi hat trick in the tournament's biggest mismatch to date.
Yet the result will offer both teams some food for thought. The islanders - a group of semi-professionals just delighted to be here - gave the African champions all they wanted for an hour and displayed a refreshing verve. Nigeria, on the other hand, will look back and wonder why they were so wasteful for so long.
Sport loves an underdog, and soccer loves a narrative. Neutrals - or at least those 100 miles outside of Lagos - were pulling for the unheralded team from the South Pacific to pull off the upset. That was wishful thinking, but the fact that Tahiti were able to score a goal in a game that Nigeria had wrapped up after ten minutes might have manager Stephen Keshi doing some thinking.
Ranked 138th by FIFA, sandwiched between Syria and Afghanistan, Tahiti qualified for the World Cup warm-up tournament ahead of 2010 World Cup qualifier New Zealand by winning the Oceania Nations Cup.
The biggest stadium in Tahiti can only seat 10,000, and the players have played tapes of crowd noises to prepare them for the atmosphere expected in Brazil. Their lone against the African giants even fervor on Twitter.
GOAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! TAHITI!!!!!!! WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS!!!! #NeverGiveUp Tehau HERO!!!!!!
-- Tahiti Football (@TahitiFootball) June 17, 2013 ''We've shown the world there's some real quality in Tahiti,'' said Marama Vahirua, the only professional in Tahiti's team. ''Just our presence here is a victory and it was fantastic to be adopted by the Brazilian public.''
Nigeria could and should have popped ten past Tahiti goalkeeper Xavier Samin and his unseasoned defense. It's hard to hold Tahiti to the same standards as any other team here - they have but a single professional on the squad. Were they fully professional, we would call their defending comedic. That's why it took only five minutes for Nigeria to score, and harshly at that: a Tahiti clearance ricocheted back off referee Joel Aguilar, Uwa Echiejile fired the shot in, and the ball was chested by captain Nicolas Vallar into his own net.
With that, the Super Eagles seemed off to the races. Nnamdi Oduamadi would score twice more in the next twenty minutes and it seemed to be only a question of how many more the Super Eagles could put on the board.
Instead, the Africans grew casual. Sunday Mba tripped over his own feet. Ahmed Musa missed a sitter. The passes grew slacker. And Tahiti? They kept on playing. When Steevy Chong Hue headed just wide, the African fans gasped. When Jonathan Tehau - one of a four family members on this Tahiti squad -scored over Celtic's Efe Ambrose, the Nigerian bench looked sea-sick. It wasn't due to the islanders' patented "canoe paddle" celebrations.
Tahiti players celebrate Jonathan Tehau's goal against Nigeria (Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty)
Nigeria finally grabbed the game back when Jonathan Tehau poked the ball into his own net with just twenty minutes to play. Nigeria would rack up two more quickly, through Oduamadi and Echiejile, and that was the end of any dreaming.
But credit the minnows. Tahiti did not sit back and defend. They played an open, expansive game, and were undone more by their inexperience at this level than Nigeria's skill. One does wonder if Nigeria had they been playing against professionals with the same heart the islanders displayed, if this might not have been a very different game.
Prior to the match, Tahiti manager Eddy Eteata had stressed how meaningful this was for his squad. This is an unparalleled moment in Tahiti's soccer history, the biggest games on the grandest stage, ever for this Oceanic side. Eteata told the media that nine of his starters were unemployed. He told his team to ignore the pressure and instead enjoy the experience.
''The last 15 minutes were really difficult for us physically because we've never experienced such a tough game before,'' Etaeta said. ''I'd like to pay tribute to my players, they were fantastic.''
They did. Tahiti arrived a week before all other squads in order to see the sights, and arrived at the stadium taking pictures, like tourists. Only the hard-hearted would begrudge them. And when the anthems came, their players stood in ceremonial necklaces, visibly moved by the occasion. The coaching staff was in tears.
That relaxed air carried over into the game, sometimes to a fault. Tahiti would be credited with two own goals on Monday and are not close to being ready for this level. Yet, they can hold their heads high: by their own low, and reasonable, expectations, they have succeeded.
After the game, an emotional Eteata talked about how hard his team had worked, and how proud they had made him. Vahirua said, simply: "It's the greatest feeling in the world." Behind them, the Tahitian players took a lap of honor. Vahirua blew the stands a kiss.
As for Mr. Keshi? He wore one of those Tahitian necklaces on the bench, - and he looked miserable. His Nigerian side arrived late, fouled by what seems like an annual ritual: a team-federation dispute over bonuses and non-payments. The team seemed a bit sour. And even with full points - and a five goal win - Keshi knows he's in for a lot of tough questions from Nigeria's ever-demanding fans.
The Confederations Cup now takes a break for a day, then returns on Wednesday as Brazil host Mexico in Fortaleza and Italy face Japan in Recife. Tahiti will face Spain next Thursday in Rio; Nigeria takes on Uruguay on the same day in Salvador.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.