Tahiti has been on a journey of development that is set to peak on Sunday when they take on Papua New Guinea in the Vahine Ura’s opening match of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup.
Since the return of women’s football in 2018, Stéphanie Spielmann has spearheaded a movement to get more women and girls involved in the game, and part of that has been creating a national team capable of inspiring new generations of footballers.
Getting a result in Fiji is a prime opportunity for the players to reinforce the roles as ambassadors they’ve been cultivating across the Fenua.
“This year we’ve really worked on the ambassador roles of our players. All year long they’ve come to our youth events, they’ve signed autographs,” Spielmann said.
“The young ones starting out in football need to have someone to look up to. Now, they want to play in France, in the United States and to keep playing football, which hasn’t always been the case in other years. We’re trying to change things thanks to the Vahine Ura.”
For Tahiti to achieve that goal, they’ve had to make sacrifices, and they’ve had to graft hard.
“I really feel that we can achieve something in this competition,” Spielmann said.
“I’ve never had a group that’s been so committed, so competent and with such diverse experience. We have girls who play in France, in the USA, and that’s a real plus for us compared to other teams.
“We’ve also really worked on developing our staff, with ten people. It really helps the wellbeing of the team and it means we are much more professional in the way we work.
“I would say that we have put together all the ingredients that we can to achieve success.”
Spielmann will be relying heavily on the experience the internationally-based players will bring to the squad as they attempt to make their third appearance at this regional competition the most memorable yet.
American Delani Guyot, Tahitian through her grandmother, is among those bringing a new and different approach to the team environment.
“We saw straight away that she brought something interesting, in particular through her athletic qualities. She gains a lot of ground on the field and we really love her attitude in training. She always gives her all, is always at the front and always motivated,” Spielmann explained.
“We took her with us for the matches in February in France and that confirmed what we had seen in trainings. She’s also become really well integrated within the group.
“Another Tahitian who plays in the United States is Tauhere Lin. She plays for the University of Utah.”
Bringing experience to a role that is often so hard to fill in the Pacific, is RC Strasbourg goalkeeper, Camille André.
The 19-year-old Tahiti-born André was also part of the squad’s February camp in France and was among the first to join the squad back in Tahiti, arriving on 2 June to spend as much time as possible preparing with her teammates.
Kiani Wong is one of the most recognisable faces in the Vahine Ura. The 21-year-old professional currently playing in D2F with RC Lens, has been the ambassador of the Hine Festival since it’s inaugural edition in 2018 and continues to attend women’s football events whenever she’s back on home soil.
Also making a name for herself in France is Vahuariki Tufaunui who plays with Toulouse FC in the D2F, with Mariko Izal and Ranihei Nui also bringing experience from Metropole to the Vahine Ura camp.
Tahiti’s first challenge will be the current Pacific Games title holders Papua New Guinea, ranked 49th in the world and second in the Oceania region to New Zealand.
Papua New Guinea will go into the match having not lost an international since a 5-1 defeat to Fiji in the semi-final of the 2018 edition of the Women’s Nations Cup.
However, despite their opponents lining up as favourites, Spielmann feels her side is more than prepared for the challenge.
“I really like playing the strongest teams at the beginning of the competition because that allows us to see where we’re situated,” she said.
“And the pressure isn’t on our side because we’re not the favourites. We’ve watched a lot of videos of the last few matches of Papua New Guinea. The idea has been to concentrate on our opponents while we’re in Tahiti, but as soon as we’re in Fiji we concentrate on ourselves.
“If we play like we know how to play, if we respect our game plan, we are truly capable of going far in this competition.”
Tahiti will sit out the first round of Group B matches with a bye before launching into action against Papua New Guinea on Sunday 17 July at 16h00.
Interview via Tahiti Infos | Images: MD/FTF or Christophe Fotozz/FTF