By Isidore Lewis
It may not have been the Inter v. Inter glamour tie that many people will be expecting to see in the final, but the opening match of the FIFA Club World Cup between Hekari United of Papua New Guinea and UAE champions Al-Wahda was nonetheless intriguing for other reasons.
What to many may have seemed little more than a qualifying match between two relatively unknown teams, for the fans and players of Hekari and Al-Wahda, this was a match of great importance.
FIFA will no doubt be the first argue that matches like these are precisely what the new format of the Club World Cup is all about: giving lesser known teams the opportunity to compete on a global stage and the chance to play against one of the world’s major clubs (such as one of the Inters mentioned above).
In fairness, it’s hard to disagree; and for Hekari United in particular, this was a once in a lifetime chance to compete on a global stage. For Al-Wahda, too, the occasion was made even more special by the fact they were competing on home turf.
The PNG side were something of a shock qualifier for the competition, having earned their place through an unlikely victory over New Zealand’s Waitakere United in the final of this year’s Oceania Champions League. The result was historic, ensuring they would be the first ever Papua New Guinea side – make that the first ever Pacific Island side (excluding Australia or New Zealand) – to be involved in a FIFA club football tournament at any level.
Not bad for a semi-professional club that did not even exist seven years ago. Formed in 2003 by local businessman John Kapi Natto and his wife Vonnie – who, incidentally, is now the team manager – the club has had a relatively successful time of late, working their way up in a short space of time to win the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League title three years in a row.
It’s an achievement worth putting into context. Many of the squad can barely speak English – speaking instead in a sort of regional dialect which resembles pidgin English – and a reported 90% of them have to hold down additional jobs in order to provide for themselves and their families. Some, like forward Kema Jack, are fishermen. Others, like goalkeeper Simione Tamanisau, are police officers. Then there are fitness instructors, bankers and UN workers. One player even works for the Prime Minister.
Nicknamed ‘Superwoman’ by the players, the owner’s wife – Vonnie, mentioned earlier – juggles a job as a teacher at the same time as running day to day operations for the team: co-ordinating the players, scheduling transportation, even making lunches and washing kit.
Many of the players live in incredibly remote environments, a situation of which is well summed up by the aforementioned Jack in an interview prior to the game:
“In some of our villages we don’t have the internet or newspapers or television. They know the big clubs from around the world. But some villagers from Koparoko where I am from think I am making up a story that we have qualified”.
This is a player who used to take a two-hour bus ride from his village to the city of Port Moresby to train and play with the club. That’s a four-hour round trip, and one he did almost every day for six years.
Despite all this, the fairytale did not last long. Hekari were well beaten on the night, losing 3 0 to an impressive Al-Wahda who – hardly a footballing superpower themselves – will be delighted to have won in front of their home crowd, especially given the pressure they were under in view of failure by last year’s hosts and UAE neighbors, Al-Ahli.
For Hekari, the dream of playing Inter Milan in the semi-final may be over for now. Yet, just for competing, the club will take home $500,000 in prize money, that’s more than 30 times the club’s record transfer fee. Heads held high in defeat, the players and the nation of Papua New Guinea can be proud of their team. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see them again next year…