Looked over the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking recently? If not, scroll through the first four pages, past Andorra, Timor-Leste and hundreds more, and you eventually will find yourself at the end. There, in 203rd place, rock bottom of this global list, lies Papua New Guinea.
It’s a lowly position that can be attributed to various social, financial and geographical factors, but it also puts in perspective Hekari United’s achievement in conquering their continent and taking their place at UAE 2010. Nor were the Oceanian outsiders disgraced in last night’s 3-0 loss to UAE champions Al Wahda, a match in which they offered stern resistance and created several chances before ultimately succumbing to defeat.
Indeed, this was readily recognised by the victorious coach, Josef Hickersberger, who offered a gracious appraisal of the vanquished visitors. “They are a good team,” he said. “They lack the international experience of our players, but they were very physical, very fit and they fought until the final whistle.”
Among the Hekari players themselves, there was understandable disappointment, but it was tempered by pride at making it this far and by a fierce desire to return to the world stage. Indeed, as their Fijian striker Osea Vakatalesau told FIFA.com, the Papua New Guineans are already focused on fresh horizons.
He said: “We are not professionals like the Al Wahda players and maybe that was the difference, but I think we can be proud. It’s an amazing achievement for us to be playing in this tournament and on another day we could maybe have achieved something more. But we have loved being here, it has been amazing for us all, and I think it can be an inspiration for us going forward. I’m sure that we will be better players in the future for this experience. And we definitely hope that we will come back next year.”
To return, Hekari will need to upset the continental order once again, and while New Zealand’s top sides will be anxious to reassert their supremacy, Vakatalesau believes the Melanesian nations have proved a point.
“I think we have shown that Oceanian football is not only about New Zealand,” he said. “There is a lot of talent in countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Right now, we are the champions of our region and if we can keep this team together, I am sure we can come back to the Club World Cup. Our first job when we go home is to start the next O-League campaign - I believe we can win it again.”