OFC Champions League: Hekari recruit two Brazillians, as Oceania teams ready to go

Papua New Guinea football champions Hekari United have taken on two Brazilian players for the OFC Men’s Champions League in Tahiti, which kicks off on 11 May.

The club’s general manager Vonnie Kapi Natto is hoping the international players will boost their side, who want to win the title again this year.

The players arrived in Port Moresby last week and went straight into preparation with the side.

OFC said Hekari United won the OFC Men’s Champions League, defeating New Zealand’s Waitakere United in the two-legged final, becoming the first non-New Zealand or Australian side to win the title.

The men’s side competed at last year’s showpiece tournament in Vanuatu and have again qualified to represent the country this year in Tahiti.

The side qualified from the PNG competition by defeating Port Moresby Strikers FC 2-0 away in the first leg before asserting their dominance with a 3-0 second leg victory to qualify 5-0 on aggregate.

The 2023 coach Eric Komeng has stepped aside to focus on the Hekari United women’s team but will still be an assistant to new head coach David Muta in Papeete.

In Vanutau, 12 months ago they could not find their rhythm despite big expectations.

This time around they are pooled with Solomon Warriors FC, Fiji’s Rewa FC and defending champions Auckland City FC.

Muta believes his side will deliver an improved performance from last year when the action kicks off in Tahiti.

“We hope for a better performance and we always train hard and I believe every session makes the boys stronger. We have some new players who have strengthened the side,” he said.

“We can achieve a positive result if we focus and work hard for the tournament.”

Players to watch in the side include Kolu Kepo, Ati Kepo, Yagi Yasasa, Karo Kila, and Godfrey Haro.

Samoa’s Vaivase-tai FC ready for Tahiti. Photo: OFC/Phototek

Vaivasetai out to learn

Samoa’s Vaivase-tai FC head into the tournament as the winners of the Polynesian Qualifying competition earlier this year.

The seven-time domestic champions had never experienced an OFC club competition up until this year.

Coach Horst Petana said the team are in “high spirits” ahead of their first ever OFC Men’s Champions League appearance.

They will focus on one game at a time and learning along the way.

“The boys are feeling good and are expecting very different circumstances than when they were in Tonga for the qualifiers,” he said.

“As much as were looking forward to the tournament, I’m expecting a tough tournament and hoping for the best for all teams.”

The side made their presence felt at the qualifiers, whey they beat the experienced Cook Islands club Tupapa Maraerenga FC 4-0 in their opening game.

Their second match against hosts Veitongo FC ended in a draw but they Vaiala Tonga SC from America Samoa 14-0.

The emphatic victory secured the club’s first ever appearance at an OFC Men’s Champions League, where they will join Ifira Black Bird FC of Vanuatu, New Caledonia’s AS Magenta and host nation side in AS Pirae in Group B.

Players to Watch in the side includes the left-hand-side combination of Alman Kwan and Dilo Tumua, who proved lethal in Tonga, scoring nine goals in the Qualifying stage.

Solomon Warriors aim for top four finish

Solomon Islands representative Solomon Warriors FC are aiming to finish in the top four this year.

Coach Franco Ne’e, who was at the helm 12 months ago, says they are stronger and better this year.

“Yes, definitely, I have a stronger team for this year and am optimistic we can make a difference and qualify for the semi-finals,” Ne’e said.

The bulk of last year’s squad are back, and the side has been boosted by new signings, including Japanese import Kohei Matsumoto.

The 34-year-old defender played most recently for Hamilton Wanderers in New Zealand.

The Warriors are also bolstered by the signing of Gagame Feni and Molis Gagame who were with Kossa FC last year but have chosen to sign with their boyhood club.

“Gagame Feni will be a key player. He has been instrumental in the playoff and I’m keen to see him going for one last run this season,” Ne’e said.

The Solomon Warriors are in Group A in Tahiti, alongside Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United, Fiji’s Rewa FC and defending champions Auckland City FC.

Player to Watch in the side is Norman Winford is a key weapon for Solomon Warriors and showed flashes of brilliance in last year’s competition.

A year on, he’ll be looking to make an even bigger impact.

His coach says the player has more experience and is more mature.

The Warriors take on hekari United on May 11 in their opening pool game.

Rewa carrying Fiji’s hope

Rewa will carry Fiji’s hopes at the competition.

Last year it was Suva who almost gave Fiji a title in Port Vila.

The capital city side then took Auckland City FC to extra time in the final before losing an absorbing contest 4-2.

But Suva were unable to carry that form into their domestic campaign.

Rewa eventually won the Fiji spot after outscoring Lautoka in the playoff.

Head coach Rodicks Singh acknowledges his side will have to raise their game to a new level if they are to be competitive in Papeete.

“The OFC Champions League is a special tournament played by quality players, who fight hard throughout the season to get their teams to qualify and get the opportunity to compete with top teams in Oceania,” Singh said.

Player to watch for Rewa will be Setareki Hughes.

He represented Fiji at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2015 and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, as well as being capped at senior level thirty-six times.

A disciplined and dedicated individual, Hughes has captained Rewa on a number of occasions and is a regular contributor of goals.

Auckland City captain Cam Howieson lifts the OFC Men’s Champions League in 2023 following a dramatic final against Fiji’s Suva FC. Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek

Auckland City eager to defend title

No team has dominated the OFC Men’s Champions League quite like Auckland City FC.

The New Zealanders head to Papeete in search of a record-extending 12th title, having been the dominant club side in Oceania Football for the best part of two decades.

Last year, the club – which was founded in 2004 – were seconds away from elimination in the semi-finals in Port Vila, when a goalkeeping error handed Albert Riera’s side a lifeline as they sneaked past host nation team Ifira Blackbird FC on penalties, before needing extra time to beat Fiji’s Suva FC in the final.

As if he needed telling, last years’ close call showed the experienced coach just how quickly the gap is closing between his side and the chasing pack throughout Oceania.

“We prepare ourselves to win,” Riera told OFC Media.

“We were in Vanuatu not long ago and we know the obstacles and setbacks that you have to face, that’s going to happen again.

“Many tough situations, good moments and hopefully we can have another good competition. Of course there is a new FIFA tournament, the Intercontinental Cup at the end of the year for the winner of the Champions League.”

Auckland City FC are in Group A and will face Fijian champions Rewa FC, Papua New Guinea champions Hekari United, and the Solomon Warriors from Solomon Islands, with the top two sides in each group advancing to the semi-finals.

“I know these teams well and we all know what they bring to the party as players in a different context, different weather, different characteristics, qualities that we don’t usually encounter in New Zealand and that changed a little bit our preparation,” Riera said.

“Sometimes, we focus a lot on fast counters against very fast players or 1v1 defending, that brings something different during the preparation when we’re in the islands. So those teams, they’re very dangerous, very good especially in the islands.”

He said players to watch include youngsters, Nathan Lobo (defender) and Liam Gillion (forward), who are both New Zealand Under-23 internationals and helped the national team qualify for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.

Both have enjoyed strong starts to Auckland City’s domestic campaign this year and will be looking to continue that form by making an impact in Tahiti.

Auckland City start their title defense against Rewa on May 11.

New Caledonian side AS Magenta ready for the 2024 OFC Men's Champions League in Tahiti. Photo: OFC/Phototek

Magenta chase another final

Two finals down but no title to show has ignited New Caledonian side AS Magenta as they prepare for the challenge in Papeete.

The side were finalists in 2019 and 2005.

In 2019 they lost 1-0 to Hienghène Sport in Nouméa in the final, after having defeated Auckland City in the semifinals.

In 2005 they lost 2-0 to Sydney.

OFC Media said head coach Pierre Wajoka represented AS Magenta during his illustrious playing career and has been coaching the side for the past two seasons.

AS Magenta have had an extensive preparation for the OFC Men’s Champions League, with the Premier League in full swing in New Caledonia.

The champions sit third on the table behind last year’s Champions League representative Tiga Sport and ASC Gaica, with eight wins, four draws and only two defeats from their opening 14 fixtures.

“The preparation doesn’t change. We continue to work on several aspects and we will be trying to go and have a good tournament. Let the boys have fun first and foremost,” Wajoka said.

AS Magenta team have been drawn into Group A alongside host nation Tahiti’s entry AS Pirae, Vanuatu’s Ifira Black Bird FC and OFC Men’s Champions League – Qualifying tournament winner Vaivase-tai FC of Samoa.

Wajoka has done his homework on their group stage opponents but is keeping his cards close to his chest and not raising expectations.

“We don’t underestimate anyone – we stay focused on the goal. The teams are champions of their countries, so let’s be careful,” he added.

His pick for player to watch is striker Germain Hawegene.

The talisman tops the scoring charts in the Premier League with 11 goals in eight matches and will be looking to take that form into the New Caledonians’ campaign, when they kick off against Vanuatu’s Ifira Black Bird in their opening match.

Home side ready for challenge

Home team AS Pirae will be looking to use their home advantage when they host the tournament from this week.

The side qualified after they defeated local rival Tefana in their playoff series.

Ariiura Labaste was the toast of the side then and the top man will be a key player again at the OFC competition.

AS Pirae will have the backing of local fans during the tournament but whether they can use that to their advantage remains to be seen.

The local side face Vaivase-tai of Samoa in their opening game on 12 May.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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