'Cannibals' to equals: The significance of New Caledonia's journey to footballing prominence
Christian Karembu, France's (and between '97 and '00, Real Madrid's) energetic midfield engine and general jack-of-all-trades, never sang La Marseillaise during the decade he represented France on the international stage.
To understand just why we have to travel back in time to 1931 and the "great" Paris Colonial Exposition - a gala event that attracted a little over 34 million people in the six months it was open - organised specifically for France to display the diverse cultures and the vast resources of the colonies it controlled.
New Caledonia, a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and their native Kanaks had stood no chance when the French had come sailing that-a-way as the competition between Western European nations to see who had the bigger catch of colonies increased, and so had been under French rule for a little over seventy-five years.
Quite naturally then, France brought along 100 Kanaks to their grand Exposition and displayed them... as cannibals. Before they were exchanged with Germany for a short while for crocodiles.
Think about this. Actual human beings were displayed in 'human zoos' as if they were a lesser species....
Christian Karembu's great-grandfather was one of those "cannibals"
While relations with their old colonial masters are improving, the new millennium ushering in change even in the deepest bastions of European colonial supremacy, the island nation is still classified as a French territory (a special collectivity), and all its citizens are French citizens (a referendum for independence is to be held late in 2018) so when the young lads of New Caledonia's U-17 team take on the mighty French U-17s, they are creating a bit of history... the conquered vs the conquerors - there's something truly poetic about it.
Caledonia has a rich tradition of history, as coach Dominique Wacalie says, "Caledonian football, it’s the king’s game, everyone plays it here. It’s played even in the most remote villages! We play everywhere, on the beach, on any piece of land, before going to church, in the smallest of spaces! Every generation plays." Not many of us know about it, though, and Wacalie has no illusions about it: "Football is very popular here, but in the eyes of the world, we don’t exist."
Although they have been competing in the U-17 OFC (Oceania) Nations Cup since its inception in 1983, FIFA only officially recognised the team as a separate entity in 2004... which is why players like Karembu couldn't represent their home nation in their prime.
Many players still travel to France to try and make it big in Ligue 1, their best chance to grab the spotlight - Wacalie himself plied his trade in France's lower leagues as an energetic box-to-box midfielder.... but the former Technical Director of the Federation (he took over as coach from Michael Clarque just six months previously) is confident of putting up a good show.
The island nation have invested quite heavily in tapping into their local talent and the journey to footballing prominence has been a long, and arduous one and he believes that his team's arrival at the Global stage is all to do with planning, and nothing to do with mere luck... "There is a lot of infrastructure here in New Caledonia. You need to have a vision and a plan in place, and all of that has to be a reflection of everyone involved in Caledonian football."
Even though the nation is yet to see a professional league set-up and despite his warnings that there is still a long way to go, Wacalie insists Les Cagous’ future is very much in their own hands: "We need to decide what we want to do with our football, either we keep playing our local game, or we want to participate in other world cup tournaments. The U-17 tournament allows us to feed our ambitions and I hope it is for the better."
At the moment, though, he is just happy to be here, and allow his lads to soak in the experience and grow the wiser for it. : My expectations, it’s to really take pleasure from this experience! For everyone! (Staff, players, coaches) it’s important I think, to enjoy these moments to grow local football, to live through a competition of the highest level and later, to have the drive to want to go back to another level."
He is confident that the Indian climate will pose greater troubles for his opponents than for his side - "I know that it will be the same climate as here after having had some information from people who have already been to India."... and he has taken inspiration from another island nation, the brave Vikings of Iceland... "We don’t have the same qualities, we are very small, but we will try to ride the mentality as Iceland which we can put in place."
New Caledonia's players are, in their coaches own words, typically Oceanic - slightly built, fast, and capable of running all day, and he believes they have what it takes to take on players that by his own admission "will one day be stars at the big European clubs"
Win or lose, though - and this is not the gratingly cliched sympathy, the token "oh-you-did-well-to-get here" - it is significant that the Islander are playing in the World Cup, that they have clawed their way onto the biggest stage of them all.
For this time New Caledonia will be on display for the world... but this time it will be on their terms, the way they want to project themselves to the world.
This time they will step up as equals to France... it's one small step for the Caledonians, but a giant leap for mankind.