Papua New Guinea may be Oceania’s largest and most populace nation, but they face a massive challenge if they are to make an impression in Oceania’s FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers next month. The national team have played just three matches since 2007, although their return to the international stage under Frank Farina suggests brighter times ahead.
The second stage of Oceania qualifiers for Brazil 2014, which commence on 1 June, could prove to be a case of too much too soon for PNG. Farina’s squad has a youthful look, and even the older crop suffer from a relative lack of significant experience at club and national team level. A tough draw dealt to the Kapuls merely adds to what is already a momentous task. PNG will enter Group B alongside regional kings New Zealand, tournament hosts Solomon Islands, and perennial Pacific contenders Fiji.
The other group features French-speaking trio New Caledonia, Tahiti and Vanuatu, plus Round 1 qualifiers Samoa, with the four semi-finalists advancing to the third and final stage of continental qualifying. On offer to the victor of the eight-nation Round 2, which doubles as the OFC Nations Cup, will be a berth at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
Football in Papua New Guinea is finally building some momentum after years of relative inactivity at international level. Leading the charge have been Port Moresby club Hekari United, who completed a stunning rise by being crowned 2010 OFC O-League champions, before competing in the FIFA Club World Cup later that same year.
The nation’s football authorities, with further international growth in mind, last year showed their intentions with the appointment of former Australia coach Frank Farina to the national team post. Farina’s success and extensive experience with the Socceroos aside, the appointment was, in many ways, an inspired choice, with the former Club Brugge, Bari and Lille striker having spent ten years during his childhood living in the country's capital, Port Moresby.
“I do understand the culture and people, so it wasn’t as if I was going in cold,” Farina told FIFA.com. With six years at the helm of the Socceroos over two FIFA World Cup campaigns, Farina also has significant experience in Oceania. Little wonder then, that the 47-year-old describes the role as a “good fit”.
Unlike most Oceania nations, Papua New Guinea is a mountainous country with most of the population domiciled away from Port Moresby. Indeed, many players have to take a flight to reach the capital from the likes of Lae and other regional centres, making preparations expensive and a major logistical challenge. On the positive side, Farina views the fact that the majority of the squad are based domestically as a positive. Only one-time Waikato FC midfielder Mauri Wasi, who still plies his trade in New Zealand, and Australian-based national team skipper David Muta, are currently based overseas.
Building for success
PNG recently spent a fortnight together in Lae, allowing Farina to settle on his final squad, which includes half a dozen players from March’s London 2012 qualifiers. Experience though, or lack thereof, is a priceless commodity and is an area in which the Papuans may find themselves lacking when they seek to swim with the Pacific’s big fish. “There is a lack of exposure to football at a higher level,” said Farina. “That is something that holds back a lot of countries, in particular PNG. The (PNGFA) President though is very keen to improve that situation so hopefully we can do that.”
Papua New Guinea have averaged little more than one international match per year over the past decade. And although, followng a lengthy hiatus, they earned creditable results at last year’s Pacific Games, including a draw against Tahiti, Farina is under no illusion about the task at hand.
“We are the underdogs without any question,” he said. “New Zealand, you would say, will win the group, and then it is contest between the three other teams fighting for second spot. [The group has] the top team in the region, New Zealand, then Fiji are second or third and the Solomons are right up there too. A country like PNG is growing and has improved, but we have to be realistic. Our goal has to be to try and finish in the top two with New Zealand.”
Half of the squad selected for the Brazil 2014 qualifiers turn out in the colours of local elite Hekari, and around eight of those featured at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup. “Hekari is the most successful and professional team in the [local] competition,” said Farina. “Their exposure to international club football through the O-League has been very helpful in developing those players and preparing them for national team football.
“Football doesn’t progress in big steps. You would like to think progress will happen overnight, but the improvement over say the past two years has been dramatic, especially considering the team hadn’t played international football for many years before I arrived.
“The players are now being exposed to a different level. We have to patient and we will bear the fruits in two, three, four years. In 2015 the Pacific Games will be held in Papua New Guinea so I think realistically that is a really good goal to have.”