This time last year, it seemed there were two certainties in Oceanian club football. The first was that their continental competition, the OFC O-League, would be won by a team from New Zealand; the second that this same team would go on to be the whipping boys at the FIFA Club World Cup.
We should, of course, have known better. There are, after all, no certainties in football, and Auckland City provided an emphatic reminder of this by beating both Al Ahli, the host representatives, and African champions TP Mazembe in last year’s global showpiece.
Then, in May of this year, came an even bigger shock. Hekari United, inspired by Auckland’s unlikely success, not only became the first team from Papua New Guinea to reach the O-League final – they claimed the trophy itself, seeing off New Zealanders Waitakere United in the final.
For a team founded as recently as 2003, it was a remarkable feat, and Jerry Allen – the club's assistant coach – is now focused on the challenge on building on the gains made during a memorable year for the region’s football. Nonetheless, while encouraged by the scalps claimed by both Auckland City and New Zealand’s national team, Allen has warned that upsets cannot be taken for granted with this latest band of Oceanian underdogs.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, he said: “New Zealand has lifted the profile of Oceania to a new level on the world stage and it has been a great inspiration to everyone in our region. But I don’t think we can expect to emulate this performance overnight. Papua New Guinea has never qualified for a FIFA event, so we have a lot to learn from this first experience.
“That said, we will go to Abu Dhabi to do our absolute best. I see this as a great opportunity for Hekari and Papua New Guinea to make our own impression on the world stage and show what we can do.”
If there was one player I could choose from our opponents, it would be Samuel Eto’o... If he has a chance to score, he doesn’t miss.
At this stage, few in world football will be aware of the capabilities of a Hekari team that will arrive in Abu Dhabi as an almost completely unknown quantity. It was therefore left to Allen to outline his side’s strengths, and reveal a recruitment drive that he hopes will leave the Islanders ready for the greatest challenge of their fledgling history.
“We have been together for a long time and the bond within the team is strong,” he said. “We also have physical strength and good technique throughout the side. David Muta (the team’s captain and midfield fulcrum) is an important influence on and off the pitch and we also have a good mixture of pace and strength up front.
“But the OFC Champions League is a different prospect to the Club World Cup and we cannot expect the level to be the same. We have looked at improving the quality of our squad and brought in several new players from Fiji and we’re still looking for more. We’re still building our squad, but we’ll get there.”
Allen, of course, can only dream of the riches and star names that some of his counterparts in Abu Dhabi have at their disposal. However, allowing himself to dream for a moment, the Solomon Islander admitted that one player at the FIFA Club World Cup would be top of his fantasy shopping list.
“If there was one player I could choose from our opponents, it would be Samuel Eto’o,” he said. “I like the way he finishes – if he has a chance to score, he doesn’t miss. His movement off the ball and his skill and technique are very exciting.”
The Hekari coach is also an admirer of Eto’o’s coach, Rafael Benitez, whom he describes as having “a wonderful reputation”. He is well aware, however, that before he can even contemplate pitting his wits against Internazionale's renowned Spanish coach, he must first plot the downfall of Al Wahda. The local hopefuls will provide Hekari’s opposition for the tournament curtain-raiser on 8 December, and Allen was eager to hand Josef Hickersberger's side the tag of favourites.
“The standard of football in the UAE is higher than in Oceania and I think the same can be said of Asian football generally,” he explained. “I think the main quality we must look for is concentration. I will emphasise to our players that discipline, patience and concentration can make all the difference.”
If Hekari can heed their manager’s call and rise to this unique occasion, Allen might yet be responsible for another of Oceania’s great upsets.