There are almost two million registered male football players in France. Of those, a few thousand are professional and about 800 play in Ligue 1, the top echelon.

Almost one in four players in Ligue 1 are full internationals, including Zlatan Ibrahimovi and David Luiz, and drawn from the footballing hotbeds of Europe, South America and Africa. And among them is a Kiwi teenager, born in Otahuhu and of Samoan heritage.

It's the remarkable story of Bill Tuiloma. Earlier this month, the 19-year-old became the first New Zealander to play in the top tier of French football, coming on as a late substitute in Olympique Marseille's 1-1 draw with Stade Rennes. Last Saturday, he went one step further, making his home debut and getting on for almost 20 minutes in the 2-2 draw with Stade de Reims.

There is still a long way to go but it's a highly significant achievement, especially in a New Zealand context. Chris Wood and Lee Norfolk played in the English Premier League as teenagers, although in both cases it was at the end of the season for struggling clubs. Winston Reid was 22 when he made his West Ham debut after several years in Denmark and Ryan Nelsen was 27 when he arrived at Blackburn's Ewood Park. In a country renowned for slow food and hyper-fast trains, it feels like Tuiloma is in the express lane.


It's been an extraordinary transition. Around two years ago, he was playing in the Northern Premier League. Now he is in the match-day squad at one of the top teams in Europe. Marseille are nine-time French champions, have one of the biggest supporter bases in France and play in a 67,000-seat stadium.

"It's quite incredible if I stop and think about it," says Tuiloma. "It's a dream come true to enter Ligue 1 and I was very blessed. It's just the start, I hope, but it was great to get that experience."

Tuiloma was sent on against Rennes to shore up the defence after a Marseille defender was red-carded in the 85th minute. It might have been unplanned but it was a show of faith to use Tuiloma in the holding midfield role with his team down to 10 men.

"It was an intense game, intense atmosphere," says Tuiloma. "I was a bit nervous but very excited, too. To get more time at home just topped it off. I had a few touches, got my tackles in, I did OK."

Tuiloma was signed in July 2013. He had done well in trials and impressed at the Under-20 World Cup that year. But it was a huge gamble on a player who had no professional experience, having played for Birkenhead and Waitakere City, and spent a year at the Asia Pacific Football Academy.

"I didn't speak French and didn't really know anyone," says Tuiloma. "It was tough at first but my dad always told me, 'You are going to make it, stay as long as you can there'."

The teenager lived in a dormitory for the first year with 26 other young hopefuls. He took language classes at the club's school and tried to adapt to life in France's second-biggest city.

"I've been working really hard to get in the squad," says Tuiloma. "It is survival of the fittest here. You have to grab your opportunity and just hang on when you get your chance."


Competition is fierce. The French league is one of Euorpe's strongest, behind only England, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Marcelo Bielsa's arrival last June was a boost - the Argentine manager is known for giving young players a chance - but Bielsa also demands the highest standards with his famously intense training sessions and high-energy game plans.

"Training can be very intense but that's what you want," says Tuiloma. "You have to learn quickly but that's the best way to prepare for what's ahead."

Tuiloma has always been a fast learner, since the days he was playing above his age at Birkenhead United. Former All Whites coach Neil Emblen gave a 14-year-old Tuiloma his senior debut for Waitakere City.

"You could see a special talent, a natural athlete and great technically," Emblen says. "You can't always trust young defenders but there was never a risk with Bill."

Tuiloma now has his own apartment and he's "fairly fluent" in French. He enjoys the passion of the local fans - "when they are fired up, it is the best atmosphere" - and his immediate focus is earning a new contract, which seems likely given his youth and sharp progress.

"It's going well for me here but you have to keep proving yourself. There is always someone who wants to take your spot."

Beyond club football, he's likely to be included in the All Whites team to face South Korea next month and will be a vital member of the Junior All Whites at the Under-20 World Cup in June. "I can't wait for the under-20s," says Tuiloma. "It's in my head every day. It's going to be huge."