David and Goliath braced for battle
Having already achieved breakthrough success as the first Papua New Guinean side to reach the final of the OFC O-League, Hekari United are now just one step away from representing Oceania at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010. If they are to do that, however, they will have to overcome experienced New Zealanders Waitakere United, who have appeared at two of the last three editions of the global showpiece.
Hekari topped Group B, one point ahead of formidable Fijian outfit Lautoka, with perennial Vanuatuan champions Tafea, despite being in the hunt until the final match, a further four points adrift. Trailing at the bottom of the standings on one point were disappointing Solomon Islanders’ Marist FC. The final will be played over two legs in late April and early May, and after strong attendances in the group stage, the Papua New Guineans are optimistic of a record crowd in the traditional Rugby League stronghold.
In the other group, Waitakere and last year’s champions Auckland City once again found themselves in an epic battle to claim a berth in the final. Ultimately it came down to goal difference, with the former edging through by just one goal, as they hung on for a 2-2 draw away from home to deny Paul Posa’s men the chance to claim consecutive continental titles.
Breaking new ground
In the third tier of local football just seven years ago, success has arrived quickly for the ambitious Hekari. After winning the domestic crown in 2008, the Port Moresby club came close to the O-League final last year, finishing second in their group behind Koloale of the Solomon Islands. Perhaps learning from that disappointment, Hekari acquired several star players from their Melanesian neighbours and it paid immediate dividends.
Solomon Islanders Gideon Omokirio and Eddie Ngaitini led the backline, while compatriots Henry Fa’arodo and Joachim Waroi were a constant danger at the other end of the field. Fijian duo Pita Bolatoga and Tuimasi Manuca also played a huge role in Hekari’s success. For all the success brought by the international players, local hero Kema Jack also shone brightly, scoring four of his team’s 15 goals.
Fiji’s Lautoka have recently cast a giant shadow domestically and they narrowly missed transferring that form on to a bigger stage, with a 1-0 loss to Hekari at their Churchill Park home ultimately scuppering their chances. The Fijians, too, had a strong line-up which included a couple of Australian players, as well as local stars in midfielder Salesh Kumar and prolific Fiji striker Osea Vakatalesau.
Between them Auckland City and cross-town rivals Waitakere United have won the past four editions of the continental competition, so it was little surprise when Group A eventually became a two-horse race. They didn’t have it all their own way with New Caledonia’s AS Magenta providing stiff opposition, especially at home in what was their debut appearance in the O-League. Featuring renowned Oceania players such as midfield organiser Pierre Wajoka and former French Ligue 1 defender Benjamin Longue, the Noumea-based club held both Kiwi teams on home soil.
Indeed, Auckland’s inability to get past the New Caledonians on the penultimate matchday proved to be their undoing. The 1-1 draw earlier this month combined with a heavy 5-1 win for Waitakere at Tahiti’s Manu Ura saw Auckland slip from top spot – a position they had held down since the opening round.
Auckland have a number of players in contention for New Zealand’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ squad, among them goalkeeper Jacob Spoonley, midfielder Chad Coombes and most notably, experienced central defender Ivan Vicelich. For now, though, they will have to focus on repeating domestic success later next month by retaining their NZFC title.
Just as the Solomon Islanders aided Hekari’s push to the final, so it was a similar scenario for Waitakere. Highly-regarded Solomon Islands striker Benjamin Totori scored both goals for Waitakere in their decisive final match against Auckland.
Hekari might be in touching distance of continental glory but they still have a mountain to climb in the form of the experienced Waitakere outfit, now coached by Englishman Neil Emblen, a veteran of the FIFA Club World Cup 2008.
“We’ve still got 180 minutes of football ahead of us,” said Emblen. “We know that Papua New Guinea won’t be an easy place to play, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”