x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Unknown islanders to invade UAE capital

Many surprisingly successful sport sides fancy themselves as The Team from Nowhere. Hekari United perhaps come closest to filling the bill.

Kema Jack, centre, who scored three of Hekari United’s four goals against Waitakere United, is the main attacking threat.
Kema Jack, centre, who scored three of Hekari United’s four goals against Waitakere United, is the main attacking threat.

Many surprisingly successful sport sides fancy themselves as The Team from Nowhere. Hekari United perhaps come closest to filling the bill.

Everything about them is exotic. They hail from Papua New Guinea, a Pacific island nation perhaps best known for impenetrable forests, rugged mountains, its babel of 800 languages - and for joining the modern world only in the past few generations.

It is not a footballing nation: Papua New Guinea rank No 203 (and last) in the Fifa world rankings.

Hekari United are named after the owner's family clan and did not exist until 2003. Their most prolific scorer comes from a remote village that often has no electricity. Many of their players have "real" jobs outside football, and Hekari are still considered an amateur side by Fifa. Yet here they come to Abu Dhabi for the Club World Cup as winners of the Oceania Champions League.

Hekari are the sort of fascinating long shot who might become a fan favourite here were they not matched with the Abu Dhabi side Al Wahda in the tournament's opening match on December 8.

"The Pacific is sort of the last frontier for world football," Seamus Marten, the Hekari team administrator, said. "For us to be in the Club World Cup is a major breakthrough for our region."

Hekari surprised Waitakere United of New Zealand in the Oceania Champions League final. Kema Jack, a former fisherman who comes from the village without reliable power, scored three of the four goals Hekari generated in the home-and-home final.

Jack said: "People know what we have achieved to get to the Club World Cup. It is a wonderful chance to show what we can do."

Other key members of the club include a police officer from Fiji (Simione Tamanisau) who is the goalkeeper; a fitness instructor from the Solomon Islands (Henry Fa'arodo) who often partners with Jack in attack; a teacher from the Solomons (Rex Hono) who plays in defence; and a UN Development Programme manager from Port Moresby, (Andrew Lepani) who is also a defender.

The side are known for an attack-first style of play fostered by Jerry Allen, their coach, as well as by a willingness to recruit throughout the vast, watery tracts of the south Pacific. Several key Hekari players come from Fiji or the Solomons.

John Kapi Natto, the club president (his wife, Vonnie, is the team manager), said Hekari will carry the flag for all of the Pacific islands when they play in Abu Dhabi.

"I believe [we] could not have done it on our own," Natto said during a visit to Fiji last month. "Solomon Islands and Fiji combined together with us and through strength of the island players we managed to win this title. It is not only an exciting feeling for Papua New Guinea but all our Island brothers."

Natto formed the team less than a decade ago after becoming disenchanted with rugby league, easily the most popular sport in the country. "He saw too much fighting on the grounds and in the stands," Marten said. "He thought a football team would be better family entertainment."

Hekari play in a league with only six clubs, one of which is the Olympic team. No system of relegation or promotion exists. The nation's biggest grounds, PMRL Stadium in the capital of Port Moresby, was built for rugby and seats 15,000.

Papua New Guinea is not a wealthy country; its annual per-capita income of less than Dh11,000 ranks 144th in the world, according to the CIA Fact Book. The country is 80 per cent rural, Marten said, and few of its smaller towns are connected to the capital by roads.

Travel by plane or boat is often the only way from Point A to Point B. The country's difficult terrain is a factor in its welter of languages; small populations often are isolated from others just a few miles away; the 800 languages in the country account for 12 per cent of the world's total.

English is the official language, but Marten said many members of the Hekari side communicate in pidgin English. He gave an example: "Mi bae go lo Club World Cup" means "I am going to the Club World Cup."

Since winning the Oceania championship in May, Hekari have re-made their side, adding 14 players. Five of those newcomers were in the first XI in the club's most recent league match, a 4-0 victory over Koloale of the Solomons.

Hekari may not be a fashionable choice to survive their opening match, but Auckland City of New Zealand ousted Al Ahli of the UAE at the same stage a year ago, and later defeated TP Mazembe of Africa in the fifth-place game.

The same sort of performance from Hekari United certainly would put The Team from Nowhere on the global football map.

poberjuerge@thenational.ae