GAUHATI: "Beautiful," was how the then-New Caledonia coach Michel Clarque put it. "Historic," was fifa.com's version. Both of them were talking about the country's qualification to the U-17 World Cup.
In the semifinals of the OFC U-17 Championships, they had beaten Solomon Islands 3-2 in a nerve-shredding encounter which was in play right until the final whistle. They went on to lose the final to New Zealand on February 24 but they had already created 'history', as FIFA put it, on February 22. With a population of only around 280,000, they had become the smallest nation to qualify for any World Cup.
New coach Dominique Wacalie also used the same word — historic — when talking about the team in the pre-tournament press conference. What they would do during their sojourn to India (1-7 against France, 0-5 against Honduras so far) was always going to be a footnote. This trip was all about trying to create an awareness back home and build a basic infrastructure for the sport (the entire country has 20 football fields). Sound familiar?
They may have suffered two humiliations on the field but off it, coach Wasalie is in good spirits. "The culture of New Caledonian football," he tells Express, "Is for everyone to have joy. Go on the other side and attack. This is our identity." That is incongruous with how they have played but they have been a breath of fresh air. They scored their first and only goal when they were down 0-6 against France but they celebrated long, with the bench hugging each other. It was a rare sight in a sport beset by cynicism.
That may sound patronising but it really isn't it. The football structure is filled with amateurs (number of professional players can be counted by hand) and it sometimes gets a bit quirky. Former captain Olivier Dokunengo still played league football there even when he was chief executive officer of the Fédération Calédonienne de Football, the official football federation. The media officer who is here, Romain Painbeni, plays as a striker for another top-division club.
Wacalie hopes guys like Dokunengo, former internationals, get more involved. "I often go to see those guys and I tell them, 'please get involved with football'. Olivier, though, has an administrative role so we work together. He is in charge of the finances to help build and maintain the team," Wacalie points out.
"But not many others are helping out, so I am alone. I need other players to be active and help promote the cause of football."
The enormity of their success in even reaching this far hits you in the face but he doesn't want to give up. "When you play in the World Cup for the first time, your mind wants you to come back."
New Caledonia is set for an independence referendum no later than November 2018. This is guaranteed under the Noumea Accord signed in 1998.
While the most popular sport is football, more than a few women play cricket.
The country has more than 25 official languages.
One of its most famous personalities is Christian Karembeu, who went on to win the World Cup for France and the Champions League for Real Madrid.
142- Their current FIFA ranking