New Caledonian football is set for a day of pride and celebration when Oceania Champions League winners Hienghéne Sport will open the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2019™ with a match against hosts Al Sadd on 11 December.
The club from the Francophone Pacific nation’s North Province will be the first senior New Caledonian side to be represented on the world stage at a FIFA tournament and the first non-New Zealand OFC side at the FIFA Club World Cup since Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United in 2010.
Despite the country’s love of the game and rich football history stretching back to the creation of the New Caledonia league in 1928, the Melanesians only became a member of FIFA in 2004, and they only had one previous experience at global level courtesy of their U-17 Men’s team at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup in India.
New Caledonia boasts Oceania’s only FIFA World Cup winner with France 1998 champion Christian Karembeu who was born on the remote island of Lifou, before moving to France in his latter teenage years.
Les Cagous came also close to winning the 2012 Oceania crown and securing a spot at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, just missing out to fellow Francophone rivals Tahiti.
However, the nation’s historic senior debut at the world stage will finally arrived thanks to Hienghéne Sport which won this year’s OFC Champions League, having debuted in the competition just two years earlier.
Star forward Bertrand Kai was named player of the 2019 OFC Champions League, while Rocky Nyikeine was deemed the competition’s best goalkeeper.
The match-winner in the decider against compatriots Magenta was certainly worthy of its history-making status with substitute Amy Antoine Roine firing home from inside his own half at Noumea’s Stade Numa Daly to secure his side’s ticket to Qatar.
Head Coach Felix Tagawa believes his side’s Club World Cup debut will be a momentous occasion.
“It represents many different things. The human valour of players from the Pacific, amateurs, who will touch into the professional world. It’s grandiose. We need the valour to be at its highest, and to be at the highest, we need to do the work,” he explained.
The club will go into the tournament high on confidence after another successful domestic season, finishing two points clear of their rival AS Magenta to clinch the 2019 New Caledonia Super League last month.
Following a busy season Tagawa admits his side will need to quickly recover and refocus ahead of their task of flying Oceania’s flag on the world stage.
“Since November we’ve been on the field and we’ll be going into “professional mode” in terms of the rhythm of our games, more games, we haven’t stopped,” he said.
“We want to put in place a strong medical team to help with the recovery of the players and continue the process of training while trying to avoid any injuries. We’re linking two seasons and there hasn’t been a lot of rest. Physically we need to recuperate, and that’s why we have a large group, we’ve got 30 players. We want to try and keep everyone in competition mode, but we’re not going to reinvent the way we prepare. We need to focus on recuperation and then behind that we’ll work on tactics,” added the Hienghéne coach.