x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hekari striker Jack is the catch of the day

A fisherman by trade, the Hekari frontman is widely recognised as the best finisher for both club and the Papua New Guinea national side.

The Al Wahda defence will have to pay special attention to Kema Jack, right.
The Al Wahda defence will have to pay special attention to Kema Jack, right.

A fisherman by trade, the Hekari frontman is widely recognised as the best finisher for both club and country, says Henry Morabang.

When Kema Jack first made the two-hour trip by bus from his seaside village to Port Moresby, it was not to play football. It was to sell his catch of fish.

A decade later, the angler from Kaparoko is the most accomplished striker in Papua New Guinea and a key player for Hekari United, surprise winners of the Oceania Champions League.

Hekari play Al Wahda, the Pro Leaguechampions, at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi at 8pm tomorrow in the opening match of the 2010 Club World Cup.

Football has innumerable stories of great players being plucked off the grimy streets of Brazil's shanty towns or the dusty patches of the African bush. Jack, however, was discovered on a beach about 50 miles south-east of Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinea capital.

Encouraged by his brother, Moses, the young fisherman played for a Kaparoko village side that trained and played- at low tide - on the firm, wet sand on the edge of the Coral Sea.

Even on the beach, Jack stood out. He was bigger, faster and stronger than just about everyone else, and had a gift for scoring.

In 2003, at age 21, he was invited to join Hekari United when it was formed in Port Moresby by John Kapi Natto, the owner who named the amateur side after his family's Papuan clan.

For seven seasons, Jack continued to live and fish in Kaparoko. Each weekend, he would make the two-hour trip by bus into Port Moresby before every Hekari match, and take a two-hour ride back after.

As he developed into the top striker for club and country, fishing became more of a hobby for Jack.

He conceded he never thought that his skill with a football would take him around the vast watery tracts of the south Pacific and, now, to the shores of the Gulf.

He said the chance to play in the Club World Cup is exciting.

"After watching some big names in football, I have the opportunity to rub shoulders with them," he said. "I am very happy and delighted that I stick with Hekari FC from day one and now have the chance to travel the world, to Abu Dhabi."

He said he will be thinking of his family and friends back in Kaparoko when he runs out on the pitch.

"Our families are all proud of what we have achieved," he said. "In Kaparoko, sport is experienced by radio and football is the No 1 sport.

"There is no power connected at the moment in the village and it is a long way from town. People will need to be in Port Moresby to experience our Club World Cup campaign on television."

Jack played a key role in Hekari's unlikely championship success. He scored three of the club's goals in their 4-2 victory, on aggregate, over Waitakere United of New Zealand in the Oceania Champions League final.

Looking back at his roots at amateur level, Jack said "training" is an imprecise science. "All you have to do is two or three laps around the field and kick a few balls before going home for the day." While the bright lights of Port Moresby represented a new world for Jack, he has never played in a stadium like the ones which will be used in Abu Dhabi.

Hekari United train in the National High School football park and play their big matches in a 15,000-seat stadium built to accommodate a rugby league team.

Jack credits Kapi Natto, and his wife, Vonnie, for inspiring him to stay with football and for putting him on track to stardom in his home country.

Kapi Natto returns the compliments.

"He is big and strong, the club's go-to player for goalscoring," Kapi Notto said.

Kapi Natto said the Jack story is a "an amazing example of raw talent" nurtured into his country's top goalscorer.

Jerry Allen, the Hekari coach, said Jack represents a heart-warming example of a village boy of a rural setting who went on to become a football star.

"He is an integral member of the team and No 1 choice striker for the country," Allen said. "He is quick off the mark and can score goals from any corners of the field."

When his career as a footballer ends, Jack already has a vocation to fall back upon. He continues to fish, regularly feeding his teammates with his catch. Though, presumably, Hekari will find plenty of sustenance in their hotel during the Club World Cup.

sports@thenational.ae