Heimanu Taiarui was in a daze. A matter of minutes after picking up the adidas Golden Ball award at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Portugal 2015, he could be seen wandering around the mixed zone to talk to the press with his shirt back to front, as if to show everyone he came across just who had been named the tournament's best player.
"I still can't believe it. When they told me the prize was mine, I asked, 'Who, me?' When they said yes and that I had to go up on stage to collect the trophy, I asked for confirmation again because I thought it was a joke. They practically had to frogmarch me up to go and get it!" the 28-year-old told FIFA.com, a huge smile spread across his face.
Continuing his account, Taiarui dwelled on one aspect with particular relish: "I'm not sure who it was, but someone told me that I deserved it, that I had earned the award on merit. But I think that it was actually recognition for the team, for the way we play. We like passing the ball and going all-out attack regardless of the scoreline, and people appreciated that."
Taiarui probably has a point. At an individual level, besides being an assured presence in defence and a leader on the pitch, he scored four goals and laid on six over the course of his country's campaign. This creativity seems to be Tahiti's hallmark. While the islanders shared the honour of being the tournament's top scorers with Portugal, with 32 strikes apiece, they finished with more assists than anyone else: 23. In other words, almost 72 per cent of their goals were set up by a team-mate.
Peace of mind and collective cheer
What happened in the final, then? "I think they had done their homework on us," the No4 said about the 5-3 defeat by Portugal. "In my case they hardly let me get a touch of the ball. No one else gave us so little space to play in going forward. They were more aggressive, that was the key," he added.
There was no hint of regret in Taiarui's words or his facial expression. "I feel at peace. We'd already succeeded by reaching the final. Of course we wanted to win the title, but before leaving the hotel we said to each other, 'Win or lose, we should be happy'. That's why there is no sadness among the team. What we've achieved for ourselves and the country is very important," he stressed, still draped in the national flag.
The defender anticipated a warm welcome back home: "They set up a giant screen in Papeete to watch the final, so I'm sure we'll get a good reception and there will be a good party."
As one of the team's veterans, Taiarui was there when Tahiti failed to progress from the group stage in 2011 and graced the semi-finals on home sand in 2013. Now he can add a final appearance against heavyweight hosts to his CV. So, what next? "Now I want to be champions in the Bahamas. We need to add details to our game to make us even more competitive, while staying true to our style."
The only thing Taiarui was not sure about is where he is going to put his adidas Golden Ball. However, his reply to our query was in keeping with the team spirit the Tahitians exhibited in Portugal: "I don't know, I haven't thought about it yet. You don't come here for individual prizes but for collective achievements. Maybe I'll talk it over with my team-mates and decide to leave it at the FA headquarters. It would be good for everyone to be able to see it, don't you think?"