BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — Coming from a tiny island in the South Pacific to the huge country of Brazil, a group of men from Tahiti is preparing to play some of the best soccer teams in the world.
Tahiti's national team will make its debut at a major FIFA tournament on Monday when it plays African champion Nigeria at the Confederations Cup.
Tahiti, one of the world's most remote islands with a population of only 178,000, will be playing against a nation of 170 million in front of a global television audience of millions.
"We will write a page of international history," Tahiti coach Eddie Etaeta said through a translator. "This will be our first very high level match."
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.
There is only one professional player on the team — Marama Vahirua. The striker, who plays for Greek club Panthrakikos, is the only Tahitian to play professionally outside the island.
But even for Vahirua, the trip to Brazil is a new experience as the team gets surrounded by security, quizzed by the world media, and prepares to play in some of the most famous venues in the sport.
"Everything is rather new, I have never lived this before," Vahirua said through a translator at a news conference attended by only two reporters from Tahiti.
"I have never been at such a tournament. It will be a very first time for me as well. I will try not to be shy."
Of the 23 players, Tahiti coach Eddie Etaeta said nine are unemployed, while others have day jobs as delivery boys, truck drivers, physical education teachers and accountants.
"They don't want to be ridiculed, they want to show ... we are up to the task," Vahirua said.
Tahiti will be playing teams in Brazil not only full of professional players, but also earning big money.
Facing Nigeria first seems like good fortune from the draw, given that world and European champion Spain is next in Group B, followed by South American champion Uruguay.
"The players are all aware there is a chasm between the professional and amateur world," Vahirua said. "I think tomorrow we will not be on a par with Nigeria ... they have been professional for years.
"But mentally we are ready. We will fight like lions and we will do anything to represent our country."
The Nigeria match will be played at the Mineirao, a renovated stadium that is one of Brazil's most revered soccer venues with a capacity exceeding 62,000.
The biggest stadium in Tahiti can only seat 10,000, and the players have heard tapes of crowd noises to prepare them for the atmosphere expected in Brazil.
"I don't feel at ease because it's not what we are used to at home," Etaeta said. "When I got here and saw this huge stadium I felt a bit cold. It's a stadium loaded with history ... In the dressing room I was really astonished to see these huge lockers."
The trip for Tahiti is about putting in credible performances — and avoiding embarrassments such as their record 10-0 loss to New Zealand in 2004 — rather than being star-struck by opponents.
With the experience gained in Brazil, Etaeta hopes the team's chances of becoming more competitive on the field will be enhanced. Because after leaving Brazil, it will be back to playing in front of tiny crowds with little interest from the rest of the world.
"Today the star is Tahiti," Etaeta said. "I'm proud the whole of media looks to Tahiti ... and we will try to draw lessons so we can improve our football."
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris