The Port Moresby-based Hekari United pulled off a major coup in the 2010 O-League, making it all the way to the final and then going one step further by beating heavy favourites Waitakere United to qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup last year.
They represented Oceania with pride at the prestigious event in Abu Dhabi, losing 3-0 to hosts Al-Wahda but performing well and proving that it is possible for Pacific players to compete with top overseas professionals.
But they appear to have suffered a Club World Cup hangover and have not been at their best during this season’s competition. With just one pool game remaining, the Papua New Guineans are out of the running for a spot in the final and sit at the bottom of Group A, having tasted victory just once in their five matches.
A 2-1 loss to resurgent Solomon Islands side Koloale in the last round put an end to any lingering hopes coach Jerry Allen and his players might have had of making the final and they now have only pride to play for in their last match against Lautoka.
The underwhelming showing has led to questions being asked of the team and management but Kapi-Natto does not think the form slump will be permanent and says it was always going to be tough for Hekari to repeat their heroics of last season.
“Becoming a champion is one thing but defending the title is an enormous task by any football team,” he told Papua New Guinea newspaper The National.
“I can boast that Hekari is a very disciplined club and will be kept like that for as long as my wife, Vonnie Kapi-Natto, is the manageress along with her management team.”
Allen and his coaching staff relied heavily on imported played from the Solomon Islands and Fiji in the battle to book a return to the Club World Cup and only half of the original 30-man squad were from Papua New Guinea. Some onlookers have suggested this may have been a reason for the disappointing results but Kapi-Natto is unapologetic about the club’s recruitment policy.
“Papua New Guinea is not ready to compete at the highest level of club football in the Oceania region,” he says. “I had to spend my own time and resources to bring these international players in to help the club achieve what I want to do for my country and that is my right as the owner.
“It takes a wealth of experience to fight together and that is what Hekari did through the Solomon and Fiji players. Without their support we would not have made it.”
Kapi-Natto admits that the departure of key players Stanley Waita and Alick Maemae left big boots to fill but says they left on their own accord he could do little to stop them
“I agree that they were two players who helped Hekari qualify for the Club World Cup. But the team does not win because of one or two players, it takes 11 to win a match and that is what we achieved as a team.”
Hekari’s final match of the 2011 O-League is at home at PMRL Stadium on March 19 from 3pm local time.