x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hekari United have modest expectations

There’s no pressure on Al Wahda’s Club World Cup opponents and they believe they are a stronger side now than when they won the Oceania Champions League.

Hekari United, Al Wahda’s first opponents in the Club World Cup, have made big changes since qualifying for the tournament.
Hekari United, Al Wahda’s first opponents in the Club World Cup, have made big changes since qualifying for the tournament.

Hekari United have not been idle, these six months since qualifying for the Fifa Club World Cup. The amateur side from Papua New Guinea changed half their squad, bringing in 14 new players, including five who have moved into their first XI. They believe they are a stronger side now than when they won the Oceania Champions League.

Not that Hekari expect to intimidate Al Wahda, the Pro League champions and their opponent in the Club World Cup opener on December 8. Seamus Marten, the team administrator, said his side's first goal is "a credible performance". But he said they also remember well that Auckland City of New Zealand stunned Al Ahli at a similar stage a year ago, and later defeated the African champions TP Mazembe in the fifth-place match.

"That was massive for us," Marten said."Massive. It proved to us that an Oceania side can be competitive on this sort of stage."

Marten was in Abu Dhabi this week to do advance work with officials from Fifa and the local organising committee.

Meanwhile, the club continues to train in Port Moresby and had two league matches this week before they turn their full attention to Al Wahda.

Marten said that Hekari will not be afraid.

"Our players have a charming naivete," he said. "A lot of what this is, how big it is, goes right over their heads, and maybe that is good because they are fearless about what they are coming into. No hesitation, no trepidation at all."

Hekari remains an amateur side, Marten said, though of late the squad's players have taken to listing their occupation as "footballer" on immigration forms. "A year ago, they likely would have written 'unemployed' or 'student'," he said.

Eight squad members still take most of their income from their "real" jobs. One of them, Simon Tamanisau, the top-choice goalkeeper, is on leave from his job as a police officer in Fiji.

Hekari will come to Abu Dhabi as the most international club in the history of Oceania football. The club have several players from the Solomon Islands as well as Fiji. Several of them were added during the long break since winning a Club World Cup berth.

Wahda, meanwhile, made few changes in their team, and it is not clear they have an improved line-up.

Hekari's additions have created competition in the squad, Marten said, and allowed for more flexibility.

"In the Champions League, if we were unlucky enough to pick up three or four injuries, the quality of play would have suffered. Now, there is real competition for the first XI."

He said Hekari's players, many of whom hail from villages so remote that they are not linked to the capital by road, are conditioned to long trips - three hours to one island and three hours to another - "but they have no experience with this part of the world".

To prepare for the Club World Cup, Hekari took on the expense of a two-match tour to Australia, which included a 4-1 defeat to the A-League bottom side North Queensland, and a three-match tour of New Zealand, which ended with a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Auckland City.

Marten said Hekari know little about Wahda, but he expects the UAE side know even less about Hekari. "We are not on television all the time. I'm sure it isn't easy to get video of any of our matches. We heard that before our last match that someone from the UAE might be there to film the game, but we didn't see anyone who looked like they might be from here."

The most popular sport in Papua New Guinea is rugby league, Marten said. "The [Australian] National Rugby League is on television all the time, so a lot of the kids want to play rugby, though probably more of them play football, overall."

Marten believes Hekari enjoys one big advantage over Wahda: a lack of expectations. "We have no pressure on our side. None," he said. "Our players are so relaxed. Wahda are expected to win, and after what happened last year [to Al Ahli], the pressure on them must be crushing. That could make a difference in the game."

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae