2016 was a breakthrough year for football in Papua New Guinea. The largest nation in Oceania hosted their first FIFA tournament – the U-20 Women’s World Cup – and the PNG men’s national team won through to their first-ever OFC Nations Cup final. Indeed, only a penalty shoot-out stood before them and improbable qualification for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
And while the sleeping giant of Oceania awoke, the year was equally a coming-of-age for Alwin Komolong. Having captained three different PNG national teams at youth level, Komolong debuted for the senior team during the Nations Cup, and the 21-year-old stepped into the hurly-burly of international football like he was a seasoned veteran. So much so, in fact, that he is now a central figure for PNG as they seek to rediscover last year’s form in this week’s crucial home and away 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers against Tahiti.
Expect the unexpected
Komolong’s sudden rise has been extraordinary, but in hindsight perhaps it should have been anticipated. After all, his back story is far from typical. Born in Lae – PNG’s football heartland – he has both German and local heritage through his parents. Komolong spent his childhood spread between Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and Germany. Komolong has lived in the USA for the past few years, where he has been studying business at Northern Kentucky University – a degree he is on the verge of completing.
In keeping with a theme of the unexpected, Komolong – a defensive midfielder by trade – was turned into a makeshift central defender for the Nations Cup by the team’s wily Danish coach Flemming Serritslev. Tall and athletic, Komolong excelled at the role, and he has never looked back.
As it happens, younger brother Felix is his central defensive partner for the national team. Meanwhile, uncapped teenage brother Kusunga – a goalkeeper by trade - was called into the camp this week, making for the rarest of feats.
“It is kind of weird to have all three of us here, Komolong told *FIFA.com *from the team’s training base in Port Moresby. “When you are young you don’t expect this kind of thing to ever happen. But we are treating it professionally, and treating each other as team-mates, helping each other where we can.”
Sleeping giant rouses
Papua New Guinea are still a new player in international football terms. They debuted in qualifying for France 1998, but didn’t even compete in the qualifying rounds four years later. Recent years, however, have seen PNG football making up for lost time. Never was that more evident than their second-place finish in front of big crowds on home soil at last year’s Nations Cup.
“It was a long time coming but very deserved, I think,” said Komolong, considered and articulate with each response he gives. “Building off the success of the Nations Cup, there will be a lot of support there [in Port Moresby]. The PNG crowds are crazy, they don’t stop shouting and supporting, and are very passionate for their team. Last year was very exciting to be a part of. It has built a lot of interest for the game here.
“We always had the potential to play. We had the right players and the right coach, so I think we showed we are capable of, and proved we are worthy of playing at such a level.”
Now PNG’s aim is to build upon last year’s momentum and reach fresh highs. To make the next step and reach the Oceania play-off final they need to top their three-team group - a pool which also includes Solomon Islands, as well as Tahiti. With only four matches each, a stumble or two could mark the end of the road. So while two wins over the coming week would leave them with one foot in the play-off, two defeats would mark the end of the campaign.
PNG’s work-rate and esprit de corps was a standout facet of last year’s success, and Komolong says the *Kapuls *will be adapting a similar mentality for Stage 3 qualifiers. “We are approaching these matches the same way we approached the Nations Cup,” he said.
“We know the task at hand. Trying to go further [than ever before] and make stars of ourselves. A lot of the boys want to play overseas and this is a good test, and a chance to be seen.”