19 Apr 2023

'We have great athletes in our region': says World Cup winner Christian Karembeu

11:41 pm on 19 April 2023
Brazilian football legend Pele (R) and former French international football player Christian Karembeu pose with the FIFA World Cup trophy during the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour on March 9, 2014 outside the Hotel de Ville in Paris. The FIFA World Cup trophy arrived with its ambassador Pele in Paris on March 9, 2014 and will be exhibited on the Hotel de Ville plaza until March 10. This event kicks off the festivities of the FIFA World Cup 2014, that will be held in Brazil through June 12-July 13, 2014. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP)

Christian Karembeu, left, and Brazilian football legend Pele (R) pose with the FIFA World Cup trophy during the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour on March 9, 2014. Photo: AFP / Franck Fife

Former French Football international and 1998 FIFA World Cup winner Christian Karembeu is excited about the future of football in the Pacific.

Karembeu, born in Lifou in New Caledonia and a Kanak, is the only player from Oceania to have had played in and won a FIFA World Cup final.

The ex-Les Bleus midfielder said with the announcement of a professional league in the Oceania region to kick off in 2025, along with the increasing number of tournaments - including the upcoming FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in July - is a huge boost to the sport.

"In the next two years we will have a pro-league. Finally our kids will have a professional league," Karembeu, 52, told RNZ Pacific in an interview at the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) headquarters in Auckland.

"This is good for the region. The dreams are open for our boys and girls...they are closer to achieving their dreams such as playing in Europe," Karembeu said.

"In the next hundred days, we will also have the Women's World Cup here and I think that's going have a great impact in the region, about football and how to host it."

'Prepare our youth now'

Karembeu is currently in Aotearoa to watch the Oceania U-15 Boys Development Tournament featuring national squads from Cook Islands, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tahiti and the small European principality of Liechtenstein.

It is one of many tournaments launched over the past decade aimed at developing young Pacific Island players, who may eventually join regional professional clubs planned for 2025.

The participation of a European nation is one method of giving the Pacific Islanders a taste of European football, said Karembeu, adding that the experience is preparing young players for the upcoming pro-league.

"We need to prepare our youth now because they will be a part of this pro-league," he said.

"When I see our islands play Liechtenstein, nobody would have expected that [in the past]. But now it is a reality that a European nation can come and play against our youth. It is crucial for their development."

Playing against teams from other top football regions is the type of exposure Oceania players need to build their pathway.

"They are learning to respect the pitch, their opponents and their coaches," he said.

Liechtenstein team at the OFC Office Auckland ahead of the OFC Development Tournament

Six teams from around the Pacific and one from Europe have assembled in Auckland for the OFC U15 Boys Development Tournament. Photo: Oceania Football Confederation

'Getting closer' to a World Cup

In January, New Caledonia joined New Zealand in qualifying for the U-17 FIFA World Cup 2023 that will be held in Peru later this year.

New Caledonia went down 1-0 to the Young All Whites at the OFC U-17 Championship in Fiji, and the pair became the first two teams to confirm their participation for the competition.

Karembeu said the youth team's qualification was a great achievement for the region.

"We are getting closer to qualifying [for FIFA World Cup]." he said.

"Our youth need this [OFC Championships] tournament to be able to know what they are able to achieve and what they want to be in the future. This initiative gives them all the tools of how to behave on and off the pitch [and] it is also to exchange knowledge between coaches and managers.

"New Zealand is the best nation [in Oceania] because they already have the facilities and competition. But for sure [in the future], Pacific nations will be able to compete with New Zealand," he added.

Becoming an elite footballer

The Pacific island's biggest football star also said it's one career pathway for youth in the islands.

As a young Kanak footballer, Karembeu had a modest upbringing, growing up on a small village on the island of Lifou.

He was picked up by a scout in New Caledonia, who recommended him to FC Nantes - a professional club in France's highest professional domestic tournament.

When he went to France for a tryout at the club, Karembeu said his return flight had already been booked.

"As a kid I was playing barefoot. With the kids today, they have the facilities, they have advisors and they have all the equipment to enjoy the game," he said.

"This is part of our initiative [at OFC]. What we tell them is to pursue their dream but in order to achieve this dream they need to work hard, because the first step is having positive mindset,

Karembeu would later play for France, making 53 appearances including in the 1998 Football World Cup - where he helped France win the sport's ultimate prize, playing alongside global icons like Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Fabien Barthez.

His success has set an example for aspiring Pacific footballers, who is often cited as a role model.

"It was a long journey. At 17-years-old, you do not know where you are going," Karembeu shared.

"At that time in New Caledonia, you only went to France for two reasons; to join the French Army and to study. But football gave me another pathway."

He reminisced about the first time he walked up the stairs to board his flight, assuring himself, "I am going to succeed," knowing that he had a return ticket booked in 15 days.

"I had to succeed or return on that date. After 15 days, they gave me 15 more days. And after one month of adapting, they told me 'okay you are going to stay'."

After arriving in Nantes, he found himself competing against players who were more developed then he was because of the lack of facilities in New Caledonia.

"When I saw that I was not on the same level as them, I realised that I needed to work more than them. When they were resting I was training alone - two or three more hours alone," he said.

"In Christiano Ronaldo's book, he said he had to work more. I did this because when you realise there is a gap between you and the others you need to work harder."

Solomon Islands has qualified for the FIFA Futsal World Cup consecutively since 2008, and in 2015, Tahiti made it to the final of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.

"We have resilience. We can do better," Karembeu said.

"We have great athletes in our region but we need our players to have the experience and the facilities."

He said the All Blacks have already proven that Oceania has great athletes.

"If we have the facilities and expertise, they [athletes] deliver. We need to do the same for football."

Christian Karembeu tussle with Italian Alessandro del Piero in Paris.

Christian Karembeu has over 50 appearances for the France National Football team. Photo: AFP / Eric Feferberg