Warm PNG welcome brings out the smiles

Fifteen nations have now arrived into Papua New Guinea for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. After a long journey from distant corners of the globe, landing in a country one knows little about could perhaps have been daunting for the more inexperienced travellers among them.

However, the 315 young athletes need not have worried about the kind of reception they would receive upon arrival in Papua New Guinea. Every single team arriving into Port Moresby was met by a large group of locals who took it upon themselves to adopt a team, and provide a welcome that was both affectionate and infectious.

This was no half-hearted effort. It didn’t matter whether it was 5am, or in the middle of a working day. A large group of PNG locals were on hand, decked out in their adopted team’s colours. Painted faces and flags of the respective countries were the norm. It was instructive to see the tired faces of the players heading through the airport doors quickly turn to beaming smiles. There followed selfies, hugs, handshakes and waves of friendship. This is hospitality Pacific-style.

A time to make friends Papua New Guinea is a country where traditional values and customs remain strong. There are only limited signs of globalisation in what is still a mostly monocultural society. Like many great sporting events, the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup is a chance for various cultures to mix and learn from each other. This was the idea behind PNG mobilising their various villages, church and community groups for the welcome.

“We want to give warm smiles and love and affection to the countries that are coming here, a real PNG welcome,” PNG Sports Minister, Hon. Justin Tkatchenko told FIFA.com. “At the end of the day we want to show what the Pacific is all about and what we are trying to achieve with our sporting events.

“We want to be ambassadors of our country, and have our visitors go away and say, ‘What a wonderful country it is and what a wonderful people they are’.

“We also plan to take the visitors on off days to designated areas of the city and be welcomed by mothers and young women. We hope to give them a new experience that they would never have had before, how our people live, what our cultures are. They can take that memory back home that they have not just stayed, but been to the grassroots and seen the real life of our people.

“It will be a benefit to the locals too of course. They heard of the Rio Olympics in Brazil, but perhaps have never met a Brazilian person before. It is about meeting a different person and a different culture."

We want to be ambassadors of our country, and have our visitors go away and say, ‘What a wonderful country it is and what a wonderful people they are’.

The family culture that permeates throughout the Pacific is undoubtedly a primary underlining theme, “These are the daughters of families across the world, and throughout the Pacific there is a strong family orientated nature. So it is about taking care of our guests while they are here, welcoming them to the Papua New Guinea family and ensuring they are looked after before they return home,” said Seamus Marten, chief executive of the Local Organising Committee.

“This is a chance for proud Papua New Guineans to show their culture, their warmth and to welcome international guests. It is a really unique place and there is no bigger platform to promote that side of the country than a FIFA World Cup.”

And it’s fair to say each and every team was thrilled by their reception. “It was great that at 5am in the morning a whole school class was waiting for us – simply to say ‘Hello’,” Germany coach Maren Meinert told FIFA.com. “It shows how much interest the people have in presenting themselves as a country at a big sports event. It is great to see how happy the people are. They put their hearts into it to making the World Cup happen here, and that is really nice."

If first impressions are the most enduring, then the people of Papua New Guinea will long be remembered by every single visitor at the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup.