Rarely has a team other than A Seleção inspired so much affection on Brazilian soil. Tahiti may be far from home, but they have won a place in the hearts of the crowds at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, with spectators cheering their every move and raising the roof whenever goalkeeper Mikael Roche makes a save. Facing Spain at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, the Toa Aito could hardly have dreamed of more encouragement even as they slipped to a 10-0 defeat.
"It warms our hearts to feel the support of the crowds," full-back Vincent Simon explained to FIFA.com. "The welcome we've received is really incredible. We had been told about it beforehand, but it's even better than we'd imagined."
Roche too has been pleasantly surprised, even if he is still trying to make sense of it all. "I don't quite understand this support," he commented. "We're kind of wondering what's happening to us, and we're a bit stunned. It's incredible to get this kind of reaction when we're a team of unknowns. Sometimes we feel like we don't deserve it. To hear the whole stadium support us during a defeat is surreal."
Naturally, Tahiti's status as genuine underdogs has much to do with the backing they have received. The scale of the challenges faced by Eddy Etaeta's side is provoking sympathy among supporters, and the players themselves are well aware of it.
"They know that we're amateurs, minnows and debutants playing against big teams," said Simon. "We're the paupers of the competition," added Marama Vahirua. "Tahiti are tiny compared to these giants, but we share a lot of values with the crowds here."
Brazil and Tahiti certainly have plenty in common, and that has undoubtedly fed into the warm welcome. The host nation may be much bigger, with 194 million more inhabitants and 8 million sq kmmore land mass, but the similarities between the two nations run deep.
It warms our hearts to feel the support of the crowds. The welcome we've received is really incredible. We had been told about it beforehand, but it's even better than we'd imagined.
"After arriving here, we got a better grasp of how much we share the same approach to life," said Roche. "We try to play with humility and with our hearts. The Brazilians appreciate seeing us give everything in such an honest way. We have certain cultural and social values in common, like our love of music and beaches. The fairly unique lifestyle is another link as well."
Nor is all this a new phenomenon. Four years ago, when Lionel Charbonnier took the reins of the Tahiti side that had qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ winner explained that he had to "think like a Brazilian" to be effective in his role.
"Their way of thinking, their appearance, the climate and environment are almost the same as in Brazil," he told FIFA.com. "They like to have fun when doing their jobs. You have to respect their culture if you want to get the best out of them."
"We've won a big victory," he said during his press conference. "We've won the hearts of the people. Obrigado, everyone." As for Steevy Chong-Hue, the hero of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup final, he even compared himself to Neymar, "but without the same technique, of course!"
Like Brazil, finally, Tahiti is gearing up to hold a FIFA tournament this year, with the small Polynesian island set to host the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup – a tournament Brazil have won four times. "Brazilians no doubt relate to our relaxed attitude, our love of partying and our positive approach to both football and beach soccer," said Vahirua in the bowels of the Maracana, not far from the birthplace of beach soccer itself, Copacabana.
"We've always looked to get forward without parking the bus at the back, and I think that's been really appreciated," added the forward. "Lastly, we have a little Brazilian blood in us as well. They must have noticed."