x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hekari are here to make history

The Pacific Islanders want the Pro League champions Al Wahda's scalp with their match the only stage of the tournament where the loser goes home without playing a second match.

Despite being the champions of Oceania, Hekari are recognised as semi-professional. 

Courtesy of Shane Wenzlick
Despite being the champions of Oceania, Hekari are recognised as semi-professional. Courtesy of Shane Wenzlick

ABU DHABI // On the eve of the biggest match in the history of Hekari United, the message from the players, coach and staff of the Oceanic champions was as transparent as the crystal waters that creep up the beaches of the club's native Papua New Guinea: "Underestimate us at your peril".

Tonight's opening fixture of the Club World Cup pits Hekari against Al Wahda, the Pro League champions, at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium. The play-off is the only stage of the tournament where the loser goes home without playing a second match.

Last year saw Al Ahli, the Dubai-based club that qualified by winning the 2009 Pro League, crash out to Auckland City, an amateur side from New Zealand. The pressure on Wahda to avoid emulating their Emirati counterparts is fierce. And Hekari hope to benefit.

Tommy Mana, the Solomon Islander who is the assistant coach of the Port Moresby club, conceded he knows little about Wahda, but is aware the Abu Dhabi club have a heavy burden. In contrast, he said, his team are able to play with no inhibitions.

"We have no pressure and nothing to lose," Mana said. "We are here to play football and show the world what the island nations can do. A couple of us have played at the World Cup, but in beach soccer. Most of us have no idea [of the magnitude of this event], so we have no pressure. I will tell them simply to play and to win."

Hekari are the first side from the Pacific Islands to compete in the annual Fifa competition. Public viewing areas have been set up around Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinea capital, to broadcast the games live, despite them kicking off at 2am local time.

They are the ultimate underdogs: seven-years-old, yet competing against the best club sides in world football. Around 90 per cent of the squad hold down full-time jobs as well as their football commitments and the team is recognised as semi-professional.

However, Andrew Lepani, the club captain, said his side's standing in the game is equal to that of Wahda.

"The beautiful thing about football is that it unites everyone, regardless of status" he said. "We train hard - twice a day, five days a week - and we are here for business, for a big game.

"Believe me, when we take to the field there will be no difference between us and our opponents. We want to do the same as Auckland did last year, which is win a game at the Club World Cup."

John Kapi Natto, the Hekari owner, echoed those sentiments.

"At home, the football is not to the level that we dream about as young boys when we hear 'Inter Milan' or 'Internacional'," he said. "We are small and humble, but football is a round ball and can do magic. If we believe, then we can overcome the challenges and achieve anything."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae