Hekari United is looking to uphold a revered legacy when it kicks off its OFC Champions League 2023 campaign against local club Ifira Blackbird in Port Vila, Vanuatu today.

Only two clubs in the Pacific – New Zealand’s Auckland City and Ba from Fiji – have played in more OCL tournaments than the Papua New Guinea powerhouse.

And Hekari United is one of only two Pacific Island clubs to win the tournament in the modern OCL era (from 2007) when a New Zealand team has been competing.

Hekari coach Erick Komeng was in the playing line-up when the club triumphed in a two-leg final against Waitakere United in 2010 and he says his young, fully-fit squad will compete strongly again.

“We have a legacy to keep up,” Komeng said ahead of the Group B contest. 

“The name Hekari is well known in the Pacific. Telling the stories of that win back to this young team, they are motivated.

“We’ve won this title before and I’m sure we can do it again.”

Ifira Blackbird coach Jean Robert Yelou has played against Hekari in OCL tournaments and has huge respect for his opponent. But he wants home advantage to count.

“Playing on home soil with a vocal crowd is a benefit,” Yelou said. “There is also pressure, but for us – as coaches and as players – that pressure is normal. We simply need to focus on the job we have to do.”

Both coaches believe a positive result first-up is vital. Pool B looks tight. Hekari and the local Vanuatu representatives are joined by New Caledonia’s Tiga Sport and AS Pirae from Tahiti.

Pirae is starting the tournament without two key players and their usual head coach Raimoana Bennett, who hopes to join the team after the first match. Assistant coach Maheanuu Gatien will be in charge for the first contest and is embracing the opportunity.

“We have been preparing for this tournament for almost a year,” Gatien said. “We have a challenge in Tahiti because we don’t have a lot of [elite] teams to help prepare us, but we’re here to test ourselves and compete against everyone.”

AS Pirae tackle Tiga Sport at midday local time, followed by the Ifira Blackbird clash with Hekari United at 3pm.

The Group A opening matches in Luganville yesterday saw Auckland City FC recover from an early 1-0 deficit to beat a 10-man Solomon Warriors 3-1 whilst Fiji’s Suva FC powered to a resounding 6-0 win over Samoan side, Lupe Ole Soaga.