Friday 14 February 2020, 04:50

Oceania aspirants buoyed after Hienghene breakthrough

  • Sixteen-team OFC Champions League kicks-off this weekend

  • Hienghene Sport seek to defend crown after unexpected title

  • Winner to feature in 2020 FIFA Club World Cup

For nearly a decade it seemed New Zealand’s stranglehold on the OFC Champions League was unshakeable. Auckland City led the way with a world record seven straight continental club titles, while Team Wellington maintained NZ’s domination at the back end of the decade.

Last year, however, unheralded New Caledonia side Hienghene Sport – a club with a modest historical record even at domestic level – broke through to win the tournament on a memorable evening in Noumea. And they subsequently won hearts with a gallant but luckless showing at the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar.

This year 16 clubs from nine of the Oceania Football Confederation’s 11 Member Associations will line up chasing continental glory. Also on offer is passage to the FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2020™ – the last edition to be played in its current format.

The top-two in each group will meet in the quarter-finals in April. Unlike last year, however, the last-eight and last-four ties will take place over two legs before the one-off final on 16 May.

This year’s action commences on Saturday in the Vanuatu-hosted Group B. Hienghene will open Group A action on Sunday under a blazing Port Moresby midday sun. Groups C and D will commence on the opening weekend of March with record holders Auckland City headlining the latter group.

Group A: Hienghene Sport (New Caledonia), Eastern Suburbs (New Zealand), Hekari United (Papua New Guinea), Galaxy FC (Vanuatu)

Quirkily, Hienghene have been drawn into the same group as the last non-New Zealand side to win the Champions League; Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United. Also lining up are New Zealand champions and tournament debutants Eastern Suburbs, plus Galaxy FC from Vanuatu, who are also first-timers. “It’s not about what happened yesterday, or last year,” said Hienghene talisman Bertrand Kai. “But we are experienced, we trust each other, we are focussed, we know how to win and we have a strong mentality.”

Group B: Malampa Revivors (Vanuatu), Lae City (Papua New Guinea), Henderson Eels (Solomon Islands), Lautoka (Fiji)

Group B clubs collectively bring only a modest amount of experience at regional level, but a host of interesting players are spread across the quartet. Lae City line up with a stack of PNG internationals, including the free-scoring Raymond Gunemba. Solomon Islands’ Henderson Eels have included richly gifted teenager Raphael Le’ai with the forward instrumental in the nation’s breakthrough qualification for last year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Group C: AS Magenta (New Caledonia), AS Tiare Tahiti (Tahiti), Solomon Warriors (Solomon Islands), Tupapa Maraerenga (Cook Islands)

After last year’s heartbreaking defeat in the all-New Caledonia Champions League final, AS Magenta will have added incentive this campaign. New Caledonia’s most successful club this century suddenly found themselves eclipsed by new boys Hienghene on both the continental and local stage. Cook Islands’ Tupapa Maraerenga qualified via the preliminary stage and face a tough challenge to stay competitive.

Group D: Auckland City FC (New Zealand), Ba FC (Fiji) and AS Venus (Tahiti), Lupe Ole Soaga (Samoa)

Auckland City line up for their 16th consecutive continental campaign and for the first time in nine years Spaniard Ramon Tribulietx is not at the helm, with former Team Wellington boss Jose Figueira assuming the reins. As always the Navy Blues will start as favourites but the Tahiti-based group will offer both football and environmental challenges, with Ba and local outfit AS Venus the main challengers.