PNG's London hopes survive Pacific test

Papua New Guinea’s ambitions of reaching the Women's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 remain alive after the completion of the opening stage of Oceanian qualifying. The bright lights of the busy metropolis that is London, where the 2012 Olympiad will take place, could not be further removed from the tropical environs of the Loto-Tonga Centre, some 20 minutes out of the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa. That, however, was where the journey commenced for Oceania aspirants seeking passage to London 2012.

Awaiting the victor of the four-nation tournament would be New Zealand, with a two-legged play-off to be held at the end of the month. Ultimately it was Papua New Guinea who triumphed to re-affirm their long-held status as the region's top women’s football nation, the Kiwis aside. But there were other success stories too, with the home side reaching the final and turning in a stoic performance in the decider, before eventually succumbing to a more experienced opponent. So too a major accomplishment was achieved by Vanuatu, who earlier in the day won their first ever international match by defeating Samoa.

Four-way contest
With New Zealand waiting in the wings, just four of Oceania’s nine other nations entered the competition, played out over six days at Tonga’s national football centre. Disappointingly, the Cook Islands did not participate, with the tiny remote archipelago at the eastern end of the Oceania confederation having impressed during 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup™ qualifiers.

Nor were the Solomon Islands present, thus opening the door for Tonga, with the assistance of home ground advantage, to emerge as PNG's main challengers. So it proved, with the Papuans winning all three games, although they had to work hard before edging Tonga 2-0.

Papua New Guinea showed their class as the number one Pacific Island team.
Tonga coach Lui Muavesi

The close nature of the group stage contest set up the possibility of an upset in the decider and, backed by a boisterous crowd, Tonga held firm until the dying minutes of the half. However, a disastrous few minutes either side of the interval proved costly. Tonga defender Salome Va’enuku was dismissed for a goalline handball and, although Tonga goalkeeper Lupe Likiliki stopped the resultant penalty, the Papuans bagged the only goals of the game through Fatima Rama and Barbra Muta within five minutes of the restart.

“When you go a player down it is always hard and I think it took us about ten minutes to get our heads around it,” said Tonga coach Lui Muavesi. “Papua New Guinea showed their class as the number one Pacific Island team.”

The statistics indicate that Papua New Guinea were worthy winners, securing four successive wins and scoring 22 goals en route to repeating their success as Pacific queens during Beijing 2008 qualifying. In the individual stakes, PNG captain and inspirational midfielder Deslyne Siniu was named Player of the Tournament after hitting five of her team’s goals. Tonga skipper and custodian Likiliki was named the best goalkeeper, while Tonga striker Piuingi Feke finished top goalscorer with seven.

Tough task in store
Four years ago, New Zealand defeated Papua New Guinea 2-0 to secure passage to Beijing, but the Football Ferns have made significant strides in recent years and they routed the same opponent in qualifying for Germany 2011. Both of those encounters were one-off matches, but this time a two-legged challenge awaits. What may seem a relatively straightforward process for New Zealand could prove to be a major challenge. The cloying humidity in the PNG capital of Port Moresby can, as New Zealand club teams will attest, provide a major hurdle to overcome.

“We have a lot to work on,” said PNG coach Steven Mune after the victory over Tonga. “New Zealand will really come at us so we have to make sure we are ready. We will have to work on our defence particularly because New Zealand are likely to attack us time and time again.”