8 December ~ When Papua New Guinea's Hekari United take to the field to play Al-Wahda from the UAE in the Club World Cup today, it'll be the culmination of a vision for the tiny club's owner. Formed in 2003, Hekari have quickly risen to dominate FIFA's lowest ranked nation through a plan to bring together the best talent the Pacific can offer.
Team owner John Kapi Natto has acquired the best local talent as well as imports from Fiji and the Solomon Islands, with the club going on to win the past four Papua New Guinea National Soccer League crowns. Nonetheless, few thought the Papuans would beat New Zealand side Waitakere United when the two teams met in May's O-League final. But, thanks mainly to a 3-0 first leg win in oppressive conditions at their Port Moresby home ground, Hekari secured a 4-2 aggregate victory for a chance to possibly take on Internazionale. Natto immediately dedicated the win to all Pacific Island nations, not just Papua New Guinea, before taking the O-League trophy on a tour of Fiji and the Solomons.
Fans are unlikely to get to see Walter Samuel try to come to grips with Hekari's star striker Kema Jack however, seeing as the Papua New Guineans would have to somehow win two matches to set up semi-final showdown with Rafa Benítez's side. More likely, Al-Wahda will end the Papuans international adventure at the first hurdle. The Abu Dhabi club are by no means giants themselves but a recent one-year shirt sponsorship deal worth over £800,000 highlights the gulf in resources between them and Hekari.
Even recent form suggests there's little chance of a fairytale run for the minnows. A loss in the opening match of their O-League defence, going down 2-1 to Vanuatu's Amicale in October, was hardly the pre-tournament boost coaches Tommy Mana and Jerry Allen would have been looking for. Even if Hekari's adventure lasts just one match, the $500,000 (£319,000) prize money for the competition's last placed team will still be unprecedented funds for a club from a country where more than a third of the population live below the poverty line.
The money is expected to be invested into the country's grassroots football, a much-needed boost in Papua New Guinea, where rugby league dominates the sporting landscape. And Hekari's success is already inspiring their Oceania counterparts to aim higher. "We believe in developing football and we are proud that one island nation has qualified," Fijian FA chief executive Bob Kumar said of Hekari's success. "We will have to work together and strengthen our ties to make sure that not only this year but in many years to come we have this island connection." Ed Jackson