It’s fair to say that this one of the most intriguing points in the history of Papua New Guinea football. The men’s national team earlier this year tasted their first international final – though it ended in penalty heartbreak at the 2016 OFC Nations Cup – while they are now on the brink of hosting their maiden global tournament in the shape of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
There is a feeling in the footballing circles of OFC’s largest nation that the slumbering giant could finally be stirring. The foray into the confederation showdown is the most visible evidence of a deeper upwards trend in the men’s game and a historic hosting of the U-20 Women’s World Cup could have a profound impact on women’s football and beyond.
Kicking off on 13 November, the tournament hopes to keep the momentum up on their own shores – having cut their teeth in terms of international competition with the 2015 Pacific Games. Former PNG women’s captain Catherine Davani, who now sits as a judge on the nation’s Supreme Court, has no doubts about how transformative it could prove to be.
Davani’s broad experience inside and beyond football sees her well-placed to gauge the potential for social change of hosting a FIFA tournament in a nation where, according to the United Nations Development Programme, gender inequality is a major issue and gender violence is unacceptably high.
“People have heard of FIFA and it’s a real achievement for us to win the right to host,” she said in discussion with FIFA World Football Museum. “In terms of what it will do for our womenfolk - it will do a lot. Our country is a small island community and we live a very traditional life in our villages.
“A great majority of our women have never left these shores and this will open our womenfolk’s eyes to the reality of what is out there in the world. I’m hoping that it’s not just football that will come – that a lot more will come in terms of good things that will happen for this country.”
Building a lasting legacy
With the potential so great, the nation’s FA have been investing to try to capture this opportunity – having stepped into the breach after South Africa pulled out as initial hosts, with PNG being named as their replacement in March 2015. Davani is hoping it proves to be sustained interest in the development of women’s football, and not just in international fixtures and a women’s national league but the construction of robust underlying structures at grassroots level.
“I know the current U-20 team, for the first time, has received a lot of investment in its preparations from both the government and the PNGFA and I know the FA are looking at the tournament’s legacy,” the former player – who featured in their first ever game in 1988 and helped them to their first Pacific Games title in 2003 – explained.
“In terms of that legacy, what would be great would be development of frameworks for women’s development and provisions within those regulations for coaching, training and committees because women’s development has been very ad hoc up to this point.”
The wheels are clearly turning in the men’s game too, as their Nations Cup exploits so emphatically showed. It took the Kapuls 43 years of trying to make their first final – a tense but goalless affair through 120 minutes – but there had been signs in recent times that the nation could make good on decades of unfilled promise.
In 2010, Hekari United defeated Waitakere United over two legs to reach the FIFA Club World Cup, with league standards across the board rising in its wake. Former New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert then guided the U-23 team to a bronze medal at last year’s home Pacific Games, building on the progress Frank Farina had made with previous age-group sides.
The senior team – now coached by former Denmark assistant Flemming Serritslev – have a shot at reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, earned off the back of reaching the Nations Cup semis. “We have targeted World Cup qualification,” captain David Muta told the FIFA World Football Museum matter-of-factly. “Anything is possible.
“[Serritslev] has taught us so much and was a big reason we got through to the final. And we have a great team spirit. We have a very strong bond and we see everything as one. Our fans have us a great boost and the players worked very hard.”
And now Muta believes the game all across the country will be carried forward by the growth in the streets of the capital Port Moresby and beyond. “Football will be the number one sport in Papua New Guinea soon,” he said. “The sport got a big boost from the tournament – to see the amount of kids kicking a football after the Nations Cup – oh man!”