Everybody loves the David vs. Goliath ties in football, that is until Goliath crushes David into dust and the crowd are left feeling somewhat disappointed. Routing for the underdog is built into our nature; we secretly want them to prevail even at the expense of the more skillful or well liked team. But when we watch in horror as they collapse under the opposition pressure and start to leak goals like a sieve, we start to wonder what exactly are they learning from this?
The harsh true is nothing. Tahiti’s three performances at this year’s Confederation Cup, where they shipped 24 goals and only scored 1, was embarrassing to watch and occasionally painful. As a second string Spanish side toyed with them on like a lion plays with a dying zebra, you can’t help but think how is this helping the Tahiti players? Losing 10-0 to Spain only days after a 6-1 defeat to a young Nigeria side won’t exactly be a confidence booster. Pundits talk about experience and learning curves, but the only thing the Tahiti goalkeeper learned over the two games was how to pick the ball out of his net 16 different ways. In fact, he celebrated as if he had just won the game when Spain hit the cross bar. Added into that a third and final humiliation, an 8-0 defeat at the hands of Uruguay, Tahiti will be remembered not for their play but for being the whipping boys of the 2013 Confederation Cup.
Tahiti to be fair deserved to be there just as much as Spain, Uruguay or Nigeria after winning for the very first time the Oceania Nations Cup last June, mostly thanks to favorites New Zealand pressing the self destruct button against New Caledonia in the semi finals. With no Australia to content with, Tahiti brushed aside a group made up of Samoa, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, before dispatching the Solomon Islands 1-0 in the semis, teeing up a return fixture with surprise finalists, New Caledonia who they eventually beat 1-0. The question however is not necessarily if Tahiti should have headed to Brazil for the tournament but why does FIFA rate the Oceania Nations Cup so highly that its winner gets to participate in the world cup trial run tournament that is the Confederation Cup? With Australia and New Zealand the only countries from the region in the top 60 teams in the world and New Caledonia squeezing into the top 100 nations in 97th place, what benefit does it serve to have this group as an automatic qualifier? Surely rolling them into the wider Asian group would make more sense, with stronger sides like South Korea, Iran, United Arab Emirates contesting it; a stronger team would have gone to Brazil to represent the region rather than Tahiti? By no means is this a dig at the tiny island community, whose entire squad play on the island, with the exception of 33 year old striker and French native Marama Vahirua, who plays in France for Nancy. Instead it’s asking the question of the infrastructure that helped to send them to their humiliating demise in Brazil this month.
This isn’t the first time that a major tournament has seen the qualification of a nation, only for them to become laughing stock and the whipping boys. Saudi Arabia had the pleasure in 2002 when they lost their first match 8-0 to Germany before going on to lose the other two matches in their group by score line of 1-0 and 3-0 respectively. In 2010 North Korea put up a gallant effort not to become a laughing stock, mostly because they feared imprisonment back home by their fearless ruler if they did. They did hold Brazil at bay in the first game before eventually losing 2-1 but in the second match, a rampant Portugal tore them apart hitting seven past them without reply. By the time they played the Republic of Ireland, some of the first team squad had already fled the country, seeking political asylum in nearby countries. The rest stayed to be beaten 3-0 and went home to face up to their impending prison terms. For Tahiti, their return home has not been as brutal with very few in the country actually thinking that they achieve much if anything, but the experience will have taught the players very little expect for looking gracious in defeat.
For smaller teams across the world, FIFA needs to look more closely at how to improve the quality of football they are playing and instill confidence in them rather than making them sacrificial lambs to be slaughter by the world’s best. Encouraging teams to climb the official rankings by playing teams higher than they are will encourage development. This does not mean that a team in 138th position (currently occupied by Tahiti) should play the team ranked 1st (Spain) but instead they should look to line up matches against the likes of Cyprus (122nd) or at a push Latvia (119th). By pitting two teams of similar caliber against each other, the result is not a foregone conclusion and therefore could make for a more compelling match.
In addition, qualification for major tournaments should be split in two with the bottom 140 nations in the FIFA 200 rankings playing against each other to determine which 20 teams go forward to the second stage with the top 60 in the world. Yes this means more games but at least if they are able to reach this phase they will be prepared for the tougher teams rather than rolling over as we see too often in international football. Everyone wants to see a David succeed against Goliath but to make this happen you have to prepare them first, and not just with a sling shot and pebble.