Hienghene wave the flag for New Caledonia’s rich football history
New Caledonia’s Hienghene Sport to make history at the 2019 Club World Cup
They will be first non-New Zealand OFC club since PNG's Hekari United in 2010
Football boasts a long and colourful history in the Melanesian nation
While New Caledonia might be the newest member in the world’s youngest confederation, football has enjoyed a foothold in the Melanesian nation longer than almost any other Pacific country. It has taken the best part of a century but finally, on 11 December 2019, a senior New Caledonian side will be represented on the world stage at a FIFA tournament.
It will be a day of great pride and celebration as Oceania club champions Hienghene Sport open the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2019™ with a match against hosts Al Sadd. With Oceania sides rarely able to venture outside their region, it will be an experience a world away for Hienghene in every sense.
The nation’s only previous showing at global level, and an admirable one at that, was from their youngest side at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017.
French-speaking New Caledonia – it is known officially as a ‘special collectivity of France’ – boasts a rich footballing history, one that dates back all the way to early last century. The New Caledonian league kick-started in 1928 and five years later a strong Australian XI side visited for a series of ‘Tests’.
New Caledonia, however, was not a member of FIFA until 2004. The Melanesians twice featured as guests in the early years of the OFC Nations Cup, proving their pedigree with a pair of bronze medals.
Though located some 1,000 kilometres off Australia's northeast coast, the French connection intertwines through the nation's culture. Quirkily, New Caledonia, along with Tahiti, has long been granted a spot in the earlier rounds of the Coupe de France.
New Caledonia even boasts Oceania’s only FIFA World Cup™ winner. France 1998 champion Christian Karembeu was born on the remote island of Lifou, moving to France in his latter teenage years.
New Caledonia were a whisker away from winning the 2012 continental crown and securing a spot at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, missing out to fellow Francophone nation Tahiti. But deliverance finally arrived in an unlikely form. Hienghene Sport won this year’s OFC Champions League, having debuted in the competition just two years earlier.
The result marked a change away from the usual power base of capital clubs AS Magenta and AS Mont-Dore. Formed only in 1997, Hienghene is based in the mainland’s remote North Province, some five hours by road from Noumea – a significant distance in Pacific terms.
Star forward Bertrand Kai was named player of the 2019 OFC Champions League, while Rocky Nyikeine was deemed the competition’s best goalkeeper. The match-winner in the decider against compatriots Magenta was certainly worthy of its history-making status.
Substitute Amy Antoine Roine fired home a barely-believable 60-metre winner, creating a soundwave rarely, if ever, heard before in the five-decade history of Noumea’s Stade Numa Daly.
“I looked at the stand opposite me at one point in the match and I was really overwhelmed,” said Hienghene's Tahitian coach Felix Tagawa, himself a grizzled veteran of numerous star performances for club and country. “It’s really quite beautiful to see so many people, there’s nothing else to say.
“This [Club World Cup] is the highest level in the world, and our football has an exceptional opportunity to have a club that will represent New Caledonia at a FIFA World Cup,” Tagawa told FIFA.com. “The World Cup is the dream of any footballer, so by definition it is a great thing, one which motivates everyone in New Caledonian football."