Spotlight on island underdogs
Forget about North Korea and New Zealand - if you like a good underdog story, look no further than Hekari United and the FIFA Club World Cup in December.
Papua New Guinea's Hekari are one of world football's smallest clubs but the United Arab Emirates-hosted tournament will soon make them known around the globe as they head to the Middle East to take on the champions of each continent, headlined by UEFA Champions League winners Inter Milan.
Hekari qualified for the tournament by upsetting Waitekere United of New Zealand in the two-legged O-League final before the World Cup, and they've since been preparing for an historic journey to club football's biggest stage.
Hekari's is a story of way-out-of-their-depth romance to rival any in recent memory. There is a gaping chasm between the resources, experience and quality of the Pacific minnows and the continental superpowers they will meet. To put things in perspective, poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea's Gross Domestic Product is (by my loose calculations) only around 30 times the size of Inter's annual revenue. And football isn't even the most popular sport in the country, lagging well behind rugby league in popularity.
Papua New Guinea are ranked 202nd - equal last - in FIFA's rankings, with zero points. So how did this club become one of only six continental champions?
New Zealand may be relatively small in the context of global football, although their exploits in a South Africa has changed that somewhat, but they are by far the biggest fish in the pond of Oceania since Australia's departure for the Asian Confederation. They currently enjoy a domination of their own continental zone like no other FIFA nation.
It's no surprise then that New Zealand clubs have represented Oceania at the Club World Cup for the past four years. Last year the semi-pros of Auckland City even managed a fifth-place finish after stunning UAE's Al-Ahli and Congo's TP Mazembe. In 2007 and 2008 Oceania's representatives were Waitekere, which brings us to the O-League final.
The underdogs of Hekari established a 3-0 lead against the part-timers of Waitekere in the first leg in Port Moresby, played in stifling heat in front of over 15,000 vociferous supporters at the PMRL Stadium. Local hero Kema Jack scored a double and Solomon Islands international Alick Maemae also found the net from range to take full advantage of the favourable conditions.
In the return leg in early May, Waitekere went about restoring parity with an early goal through Neil Emblen, but the script didn't pan out as planned as Jack slotted home an equaliser from the spot in the 35th minute. Brent Fisher netted a penalty for the hosts late on but it was too little, too late, as Hekari became the first club from outside Australia and New Zealand to represent Oceania in FIFA competition.
The O-League is a far cry from the UEFA Champions League - it features just eight clubs - but the minimum US$500,000 on offer for the winners as the likely last-placed team at the Club World Cup is a significant windfall. In the case of Hekari, that's enough to help fund an overhaul of the entire nation's football programme - compare that to the few weeks wages it would pay for a top player at a club like Inter.
Since Papau New Guinea are one of the weaker sides in Oceania, Hekari has benefited from the signing of several imports from Fiji and Solomon Islands. As such, Hekari owner John Kapi Natto has dedicated his club's success to all the Pacific Island nations. He has spent time touring Fiji and the Solomons with his staff (and the O-League trophy) as a way of thanking them for their support.
Natto told the OFC website: "Winning the O-League was incredible. I believe Papua New Guinea could not have done it on our own. It was a collective effort from the Pacific Islands. Solomon Islands and Fiji combined together with us and through strength of the Island players we managed to win this title. It is not only an exciting feeling for Papua New Guinea but all our Island brothers."
Hekari won't be given their prize money until after the Club World Cup, where they could double or triple the sum if they somehow managed to win a match or two. It's yet to be seen how the money will be spent, but it will most likely be invested to support the game at grassroots level in Papua New Guinea and possibly their near neighbours too. Hekari are by far the strongest club in their league, and the strengthening of the sport overall, not just their club, is what is required to build towards future success.
Fiji FA CEO Bob Kumar echoed Natto's beliefs that the Island nations must work together to move forward.
"We believe in developing football and we are proud that one Island nation has qualified. We will have to work together and strengthen our ties to make sure that not only this year but in many years to come we have this Island connection," he said.
But what can we expect to see on the pitch when Hekari face up against host-nation champions Al-Wahda, to play for a place in the quarter-finals? One thing they will likely have on their side will be the element of surprise - information on Hekari is not easy to come by.
|“||We will have to work together and strengthen our ties to make sure that not only this year but in many years to come we have this Island connection. ”|
Pacy winger Henry Fa'arodo will be familiar to avid followers of Australian football after featuring for Perth Glory in the first season of the A-League five years ago, but that's about as much exposure as their players have had.
In all likelihood, it won't matter. Al-Wahda might be champions of another football minnow in the UAE, but even they should prove far too strong in a clash of the haves and have nots. Unfortunately, we probably won't get to see Hekari go toe-to-toe with one of their fellow continental champions. For the sake of respectability on the scoreboard, that might be for the best.
Still, Hekari will just be thrilled to be a part of the show. While players such as Fabio Cannavaro withdraw to the Middle East to retire, this will be the journey of a lifetime for Hekari's players and support staff. And they'll no doubt have the underdog sympathies of a watching world on their side.