PNG's breakthough success
The 2009/10 OFC O-League season has been immortalised by Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United, who became the first club from outside Australia or New Zealand to be crowned. The eight previous competitions, played in various formats, have seen Pacific Island nations reach the final in all bar one of those years, but never before have they been able to cross the winner’s threshold. The success also ensures that Papua New Guinea will become the first Pacific Island nation to be represented at the FIFA Club World Cup where some of the world’s best clubs will gather in Abu Dhabi this December.
The stunning nature of Hekari’s victory is further accentuated by the fact that the club only came into existence seven years ago. The win caps a momentous O-League campaign, now in the fourth year of its current incarnation. The competition was expanded by two teams to eight this season with record crowds turning out in a number of centres, notably in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. The latter most significant, with football interest growing rapidly in the Rugby League stronghold, culminating in a turn-out of 15,000 for the first leg of the final.
New Zealand pair Waitakere United and Auckland City have been dominant domestically, and also across Oceania in recent years sharing the four previous titles. The two were drawn into Group A this year ensuring a battle royale, suitably culminating in a last-day clash to decide the victor, with Waitakere edging through on goal difference thanks to a 2-2 draw at the home of their city rivals. Not that the Kiwis had it all their own way with New Caledonia’s AS Magenta remaining unbeaten across their three home matches and leaving Tahiti’s AS Manu-Ura trailing well off the pace.
The campaign started poorly for Hekari who commenced with a 3-3 draw at Vanuatu’s Tafea. It got worse as the Fijian champions Lautoka collected all three points in Port Moresby with a 2-1 win leaving the Papua New Guinea team on the brink of an early elimination. However the side showed great resolve to win four straight and advance to the two-legged final a point clear of Lautoka.
The final saw Waitakere drawn to play in the Port Moresby heat in the first leg and despite goalscoring opportunities at both ends, it was Hekari who made full use of the home advantage to record a 3-0 win. Waitakere have experienced overturning a deficit in the final of the O-League, having done so in their two previous continental triumphs. This time however marked the end of that run and while they won the battle with a 2-1 second-leg victory, it was Hekari who won the war with a 4-2 aggregate win.
Coached by Solomon Islander Jerry Allen, the Hekari side featured a number of players from across the Pacific who played a key role in the club’s success. The side included a host Allen’s compatriots, led by highly regarded attacking pair Henry Fa’Arodo and Alick Maemae, plus a couple of Fijians. The jewel in the crown, however, was local star and former fisherman Kema Jack whose three goals across the two legs of the final saw him finish equal with Auckland City’s Daniel Koprivcic as the competition’s top scorer having netted seven times.
By any measure it has been a stunning success for the club whose defeat in the second leg of the final was only their second in any competition since last October with that O-League group match reversal against Lautoka. Hekari also collected their fourth consecutive domestic title, with Jack claiming the Golden Boot for the third straight year.
Hekari general manager Vonnie Eteaki Kapi-Natto, who has been with the team since it was established in 2003, expressed just what it meant to the club following the match. “I never dreamed to come this far. We’ve been working for it but I never thought we would come to this,” she said. “I want to dedicate our success to all the Pacific Island nations. I’m sure this will be good motivation for our children and young people because they’ve see that their brothers can compete and win at this level.”
Hekari assistant coach Tommy Mana immediately turned his thoughts to his club’s historic opportunity to rub shoulders with some of world football's elite later this year. “That’s another step up,” he said. “Here we know the standard but there it will be a lot higher. We know it’s not going to be easy but we will work hard.”