Even with the tournament just days away, and even within their own dressing room, there remains something incredible about Hekari United’s presence at this FIFA Club World Cup. As striker Kema Jack acknowledged: “When you see us alongside Inter Milan, the question I ask myself is: ‘How did we achieve this?’”
Jack knows only too well, of course – he was a key figure in the continental triumph that earned the Papua New Guineans a place at UAE 2010. However, plenty of others in the impoverished island nation were not able to follow Hekari’s historic OFC O-League campaign, with electricity a largely unobtainable commodity.
For Jack, a remarkable consequence of this is that in Koparoko, the remote village in which he grew up, several locals believe that his fantastic FIFA Club World Cup adventure amounts to no more than a tall tale.
As he told FIFA.com: “Some people actually still don’t believe we have qualified! You see clubs like Manchester United, Inter Milan and Barcelona in the Club World Cup – and now we will be there. In some of our villages we don’t have the internet or newspapers or television. They know the big clubs from around the world. But some villagers from Koparoko where I am from think I am making up a story that we have qualified!”
This scenario may in itself seem incredible, but as the 29-year-old is quick to point out, such ignorance is inevitable in one of the world’s poorest nations’ most isolated outposts. Indeed, even for those who have taken Jack at his word and are intent on following his fortunes in UAE, watching the games on TV will involve 90-minute journey to the nearest town.
As Jack explained: “In Kaparoko, sport is experienced by radio. There is no power at the moment in the village, and it is a long way from town. People will need to be in Port Moresby (over 100 kilometres away) to experience our Club World Cup campaign on television.”
Difficult and time-consuming though it is, that journey will be embarked upon nonetheless, with Hekari having provided a huge boost for football's profile in this traditionally rugby league-dominated nation. Indeed, as Jack revealed, their success in reaching the FIFA Club World Cup has transformed the players into overnight celebrities.
“We’ve convinced people that football is a great sport,” he said. “Papua New Guineans respect strength and physical power, and football does not normally convey that to them. But we’ve got everyone speaking about what we’ve done and now football is the word on everyone’s lips.
“People know what we have achieved to get to the Club World Cup and I am always aware that the children back home look up to me. People who see me say, ‘Look! There goes Kema Jack’. It is a nice feeling and I always show that respect back in return. I feel proud to be the only Kaparoko boy represented at the Club World Cup.”
While Jack is a local lad, Hekari’s squad is something of a regional select, with its homegrown contingent supplemented by six Fijians and seven Solomon Islanders. There is, however, an unmistakable shared sense of purpose among these different groupings, something which Jack believes will be crucial to their hopes of upsetting the odds.
“We have to be strong mentally, physically and spiritually,” he said. “Our strength is our togetherness.”
And should Hekari succeed in springing a shock here in Abu Dhabi, Jack will have an even more unbelievable tale to tell when he returns home.