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Tahiti takes shine off Rio dream

Spain players’ desire to grace Maracanã depends on rotation policy against minnows

Roberto Soldado (l) and Xavi Hernández (c) training with the Spain team in the Maracaná on Wednesday.
Roberto Soldado (l) and Xavi Hernández (c) training with the Spain team in the Maracaná on Wednesday.FELIPE TRUEBA (EFE)

"Since I was a kid I'd dreamed of playing at the Maracanã," said Andrea Pirlo after Italy's match against Mexico. The Juventus midfielder is not alone. Every player yearns to tread the turf on which Pelé, Garrincha, Rivelino, Zico and so many others were immortalized.

Spain's Xavi Hernández, 33, has also had the same dream. On Thursday, he will have the opportunity, if he is picked. The snag for Spain's regular starters is that the opposition is Tahiti (9pm, Telecinco), whose 180,000 inhabitants would have fit inside the old, standing room Maracanã. It is an obvious chance for Vicente del Bosque to rest some players. It is not an easy dilemma to resolve: Spain will only get a second chance to play at the Maracanã if it reaches the Confederations Cup final, where it could face host Brazil. The 2014 World Cup still needs to be qualified for and France is a threat to a direct ticket. Even then, there is no guarantee that Spain will be scheduled to play a match at the hallowed ground.

The last time Spain played at the stadium, which has been officially called Mário Filho since 1964 in honor of a local journalist, fans at home would have been watching in black-and-white, if they had televisions at all. It was the 1950 World Cup and Spain was thrashed 6-1 by Brazil in front of 152,772 spectators. The players were gobsmacked by the waves of supporters having debuted with a 3-1 win over the USA in front of 9,511 people in Curitiba.

Not many more attended Spain's 2-0 win over Chile in the Maracanã a few days later but almost 75,000 were in attendance to see Telmo Zarra fire home the only goal of the game against England to send Spain through to round two as group winners.

Spain will only get a second chance to play at the Maracanã if it reaches the Confederations Cup final

Spain eventually finished fourth, its most successful World Cup until it lifted the trophy in South Africa in 2010.

Sixty-three years later Spain is returning to the legendary stadium as the top-ranked team in the world, but the social protests sweeping the neighborhood where the stadium is may make it a warmer welcome than the players had expected. And the billing is not the most thrilling.

Tahiti has risen from 195 in the world to 138 and is playing its first ever major tournament. Its presence is due largely to the fact that Australia decided to leave the Oceania Football Federation to compete in its Asian counterpart due to a lack of competitiveness in the former.

Tahiti won the last OFC Nations Cup by beating New Caledonia 1-0 in the final to become the first champion other than Australia or New Zealand in history.

In its debut against Nigeria, Tahiti shipped six but surprised many commentators by pulling one back when 3-0 down. The goal was scored by Jonathan Tehau from a cross by Marama Vahirua, the national side's only professional player. Cue the paddling celebration in honor of the national sport: canoeing.

"It was our wildest dream to score a goal," said Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta, who wept when it went in. "The president of Tahiti suspended a Cabinet meeting to send us a message of congratulation."

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