Amateur side Hienghene Sport preparing to represent OFC at Club World Cup
First senior side from New Caledonia at a FIFA tournament
Felix Tagawa has led club to breakthrough local and continental success
Felix Tagawa carved out quite a career as a free-scoring forward. A well-known figure in his native Tahiti where he represented the national team with distinction, Tagawa is one of the few Pacific Islanders to play professional football in Australia.
Now the 43-year-old is creating his own niche in New Caledonian football circles. More specifically, the northern province town of Hienghene. A bumpy five-hour drive from the capital Noumea, Hienghene is far from New Caledonia’s football and commercial epicentre. The region’s population, unlike the capital, is almost entirely comprised of Kanaks; New Caledonia’s indigenous Melanesian inhabitants.
Football dominance in New Caledonia has long been the preserve of capital clubs such as AS Magenta and AS Mont-Dore. But a Tagawa-inspired revolution is changing all that.
Hienghene Sport broke through for its maiden title under Tagawa in 2017. This year has seen unprecedented success with the league title, Caledonian Cup and an unexpected OFC Champions League crown all heading north.
There was even rare trip to France recently to compete in the seventh round of the Coupe de France, courtesy of their domestic cup win. There, Tagawa’s charges ended on the wrong side of a 3-1 scoreline in the Alsatian cold against Strasbourg Vauban.
The greatest adventure, however, still awaits. In just under a fortnight Tagawa will pit his wits against Spanish legend Xavi and host club Al-Sadd in the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2019 opener.
Lining up in a tournament alongside some of the biggest names in world football is in itself an almost unthinkable achievement for the part-timers. Despite a long football history at regional level, this will be New Caledonia’s first senior showing at global level, following an appearance at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
“This is the highest level in the world, and our football has an exceptional opportunity to have a club represent New Caledonia at a World Cup,” Tagawa told FIFA.com. “The World Cup is the dream of any footballer so it especially motivates everyone in New Caledonian football to see that we can reach the peak.”
Hienghene face a massive step up when they take the field in Doha. New Zealand’s Team Wellington – whom Hienghene defeated en route to the Oceania crown – suffered a hugely unlucky defeat last year to prove that the leap is not necessarily insurmountable.
“I'm waiting for my team to play without fear,” Tagawa said. “We have players who like to play offensively and who are good footballers. It will be necessary to play with our forces, to play with our qualities, to play our football.
"But we will have to be highly concentrated defensively, because the slightest error at this level is costly. This is where the difference will be if we want to perform in the competition, and in our meeting against Al-Sadd we will have to be very rigorous tactically.”
Hienghene will arrive in Qatar with a host of experienced New Caledonia internationals headlined by the 2019 Champions League’s best player Bertrand Kai, along with Roy Kayara, Cedric Sansot and Les Cagous’ No1 Rocky Nyikeine.
“For several years at Hienghene Sport we have had continuity with senior and experienced players in place to accompany the young players who have gradually joined the team,” Tagawa said, when asked about his squad’s characteristics.
“We will discover the very high-level of world football [in Qatar], but I trust my players and I know their potential. In any case we want to leave Qatar without regrets.”