These are special times for football in Papua New Guinea. This year PNG will see the world’s best young players visit for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Before then, Oceania’s most populous nation will host the OFC Nations Cup for the first time, with the eight-team event doubling as FIFA World Cup™ qualifying.
Even global football icon David Beckham paid an unlikely promotional visit to the Melanesian nation recently. With 2016 set to be the nation’s most momentous year in football, there is an air of assuredness among the local football fraternity.
Now, Papua New Guinea hope to ride that wave of optimism as they head into their two-legged play-off against New Zealand, where a ticket to the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 is the rich prize on offer.
Continental challengers Over the past decade, PNG have consistently topped their Pacific Islands neighbours to be New Zealand’s main competitors for continental honours. The Football Ferns, as the continent’s top-ranked nation, were seeded into the play-off, which will take place on Saturday in PNG, before the return in Auckland three days later.
PNG won their way into the decider by virtue of victory on home soil at last year’s Pacific Games. It was a fourth triumph in succession for PNG, but they were made to work uncharacteristically hard before subduing New Caledonia in the final by just a single goal.
These two sides have met twice before at this stage, without New Zealand earning vastly contrasting wins. They were 2-0 victors in Port Moresby eight years ago, but the Football Ferns cruised past an underprepared PNG in 2012 with a 15-0 aggregate victory.
Things were much tougher for New Zealand on their most recent visit to Papua New Guinea, where their FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifier was in the balance until deep into the second half, before the visitors eventually prevailed 3-0.
New Zealand will be acutely aware that upsets have been a theme in recent years across Oceania. Tahiti started the trend by winning through to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, while Fiji have already secured OFC’s lone men's ticket to Rio 2016. And, perhaps most memorably of all, Fiji's brave team who performed with such distinction at last year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Adding to New Zealand’s challenge - who only arrived 36 hours prior to the match following a three-flight journey - is acclimatisation, with stifling mid-summer Melanesian heat greeting the players upon their arrival.
Kiwis’ step-by-step growth Conditions aside, New Zealand coach Tony Readings is seeking to further build upon several years of continued growth for his team. “In the Brazil series we changed some aspects of how we play with an emphasis on using our possession to create more goal scoring opportunities,” Readings said, in reference to a recent two-match series which resulted in a win and a loss against the South American champions.
“We will continue with this work and also fine-tuning all other aspects of our game to ultimately be a more complete team. The main goal of this series is obviously to qualify, and this will be our primary focus. In addition to improving our own performance, we will also be working towards nullifying the threats that Papua New Guinea will pose.”
Gary Phillips, a former national league winning coach and women’s national team assistant for his native Australia, departed PNG following last year’s Pacific Games triumph. His exit opened the way for American Lisa Cole to assume the senior reins, as well as that of the U-20 team.
The former Boston Breakers head coach has had her team in camp over the past few weeks in Lae, the nation’s second city where Saturday’s match will be played. Several of her U-20 squad have supplemented the senior side, thus earning invaluable experience for the U-20 Women’ World Cup campaign later this year.
For now though, winning passage to Rio, and creating another fabled Oceania upset, is the only focus.