Sunday, May 2, 2010

You should know by now that we love underdogs here at AFTN (well most of the time!).

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that when we heard about Papua New Guinea side Hekari United leading the Oceania Champions League final, our interest was piqued and we just had to tune in to the second leg earlier this morning.

The thought of a team from such a small nation playing on the world stage against someone like Bayern Munich or Inter Milan is simply wonderful as far as we're concerned. They do have a lot of work to do before they are even allowed to enter the competition proper but more on that later.

So we settled down for the kick off at 2pm local time and listened to the game live online on New Zealand's Radio Sport network, as there was to be no live online streams and only delayed coverage shown later. Yes, the excitement never ends here at AFTN Towers!

The O League consists of just eight sides. This season it features clubs from Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Soloman Islands and the two big New Zealand powerhouses of Auckland City and Waitakere United. Australian clubs have competed in the Asian Champions League since 2006 and A League side Wellington Phoenix aren't invited to play.

The new O League format started in 2007 and Waitakere United won the first two tournaments, with Auckland City winning the 2009 version. To date, and even in the tournament's previous Oceania Club Championship guise, only clubs from New Zealand and Australia have represented the continent on the world stage.

With such a mixture of teams, and the way the groups are worked out, a side from a small country is guaranteed to reach the final. Fiji's 4R Electrical BA lost out on away goals in the 2007 tournament but since then two Soloman Island sides have been soundly whipped in the finals. This year though was to be different.

Papua New Guinea side Hekari United had shocked the newly crowned New Zealand Champions Waitakere United in the first leg, winning 3-0 in Port Moresby on April 17th, thanks to a fine brace from Golden Boot winner Kema Jack in front of over 15,000 ecstatic PNG fans.

Hekari are a side consisting of players mainly from PNG and the Soloman Islands, with Fiji also represented, but they have had a professional build up to getting to this stage in recent years, with first class scouting helping them to where they now are.

The second leg was still delicately poised though and Waitakere came out of the traps like their lives depended on it, knowing that they were huge favourites to at least win the second leg.

It was constant pressure from the Kiwis from kick off and the Hekari players seemed shellshocked when Neil Emblen headed home a Martin Bullock corner after just three minutes. As the wave after wave of Waitakere attacks peppered the Hekari goal it seemed inevitable that a second would go in at any time and then the floodgates would open and the PNG dream would be over.

The next goal was to be the key. If Hekari United could get it it would mean the New Zealand side would need to score four more to win.

After soaking up the intense early pressure Hekari's Alick Maemae pounced on a poor header back to the Waitakere keeper Danny Robinson and the stopper flattened the PNG side's player for a penalty which Kema Jack duly dispatched.

With the game now tied on the day, Hekari settled down and Waitakere seemed to lose their danger and the game played out to a pretty tame end. A late Waitakere penalty from Brent Fisher with six minutes to go saw the Kiwis win 2-1 on the day, but crowning Hekari United as Oceanic Champs 4-2 on aggregate.

The win not only secures Hekari a place at the 2010 Fifa World Club Cup in the UAE in December but it also secures US$500,000 for Papua New Guinea football. A huge sum that could make a real difference to the game there.

A change to the tournament rules by FIFA in 2007 means that the Oceania Champs have to play a preliminary tie against the local host Champions before they can enter the World Club Cup proper. This will mean that Hekari will face a game against UAE side Al-Jazira or Al-Wahda before they might get a crack at one of the world's real big boys.

If we're being honest, the chances of Hekari advancing beyond the preliminary round are very slim (the continents other qualifiers have struggled in the past), but you know that no matter what, the players, officials and fans are going to love every minute of getting there and being there.

That's what football should be all about. Well done Hekari United. More power to you.

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