Oceania has a new beach soccer champion. Tahiti Nui caused a major upset on Saturday beating three-time champions the Solomon Islands 4-3 in the final of the OFC Beach Soccer Championship in Papeete, Tahiti, to qualify for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup for the first time.The Solomon Bilikiki, who have represented OFC in the past four FIFA events, went into the game with confidence after their 4-1 win over the hosts in group play yesterday. And it was the in-form Nicholas Muri who got them off to the best possible start with a low strike from open play in the first minute.
But Tahiti heads did not drop as they went 3-1 up in the first period thanks to goals from Patrick Tepa, Teiva Izal and captain Naea Bennett. The fans at Jardin de Paofai came alive and had plenty more to cheer about in the second period as Marama Amau gave them a three-goal cushion.
The defending champs threw everything at Tahiti in the third period, with captain James Naka pulling two back, but the home side held their nerve in what was a thrilling finish to claim their first Oceania title.
Emotions ran high after the match as Tahiti celebrated the historic win while the Solomon Bilikiki team stood in shock as their five-year reign in Oceania came to an end.
The 'Tiki Toa', or warrior men as they are affectionately known, will now head to Ravenna, Italy, in September to take part in the World Cup with the top 16 teams from across the globe. It is only the second time Tahiti have qualified for a FIFA finals following in the footsteps of their U-20 team who went to Egypt in 2009.
It will take time for the victory to sink in according to coach Fabrice Marchand.
"I can't quite believe what has happened. I just have a lot of emotion. My players were outstanding and the crowd, well what can I say, they were like our sixth player today."
Captain Naea Bennett says they took the experience from their dramatic 6-5 win against Fiji and their loss against the Solomon Islands on Friday to put everything together for the final.
"I think it ended up being better that we lost yesterday because it made us concentrate even harder on our goal and we wanted to show everybody it was an accident," said Bennett, who also captains the national 11-a-side team.
"Before the game we said we would have to be heroes, and I think we were today,"
Solomon Islands coach Henry Koto was gracious in defeat and says his team will be back.
"To lose the final is very sad for us but we will go back and improve so we make sure we are better for next year," said Koto.
"I think to have a new winner of this tournament shows beach soccer is getting more competitive in Oceania. We wish Tahiti all the best."
Solomon Islands defender Gideon Omokirio, veteran of four FIFA beach finals as well as the FIFA Club World Cup, says there was very little between the two teams.
"It was a tight match and there were not many opportunities but they took their chances and we didn't, that was the difference."
Solomon Islands still earned their fair share of awards with James Naka scooping the Golden Ball for best player and sharing the Golden Boot title with teammate Robert Laua and Fiji's Ratu Josevata Dugucagi who all scored four goals each. Tahiti goalkeeper Jonathan Torohia was awarded the Golden Glove while third placed Fiji picked up the Fair Play Award.
But the one that mattered was the title itself as Tahiti prepares to celebrate long into the night. They join Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, Ukraine, El Salvador, Mexico and hosts Italy as qualified nations for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup with teams from Asia (3), South America (3) and Africa (2) still to be added.