It could be argued that football in Papua New Guinea has already seen its greatest era: the magical season in 2010 when Hekari United became the first non-Australian or Kiwi side to land the OFC Champions League title and represent Oceania at the Club World Cup was nothing short of remarkable. From then until 2018, under the reign of now-disgraced David Chung, things at best stagnated and at worst were irreparably damaged. We are only now beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s still a very long way to go.
Previous PNGFA President David Chung, who was born in Malaysia before becoming a naturalised citizen of PNG, became President back in 2004, and during his time in office, he also became OFC President in 2010 and, latterly, Senior Vice President of FIFA in 2017. After corruption allegations put an abrupt end to all three of these highly-regarded positions in April 2018, Chung was banned from football for six-and-a-half years.
In October 2018, John Kapi Natto, Chairman of Hekari United and mastermind behind the short-lived breakaway Football Federation Papua New Guinea (FFPNG), was elected President of the PNGFA by 10 votes to 8 ahead of John Wesley Gonjuan on a day which united the two warring bodies and brought the sport of football in Papua New Guinea together once more. In his election speech, Kapi Natto vowed to send PNG to the 2026 World Cup.
However, despite a 2019 National Soccer League season which, at first glance, seemed to have been the most successful yet, the remnants of Chung’s previous regime still linger under the surface.
Let’s give credit where credit’s due: the organisation and execution of a complex, 27-team, conference-based league season is no mean feat, and it’s credit to Kapi Natto and certain members of the NSL board for having had the vision and the expertise to successfully see the season through to the end, where we saw eight-time champions Hekari United defeated on penalties by Toti City FC, who picked up their fifth straight title.
However, since the end of the season, several pieces of information have come to light which suggest that there is still plenty of work to be done.
In May, competition manager Leslie Babaga revealed that the NSL hadn’t taken out comprehensive medical insurance for the players involved in the competition. This followed the death of Laiwaden FC goalkeeper Mikes Gewa, who was kicked in the ribs during a game against Morobe Wawens in the Northern Conference. Babaga claimed it was the club managers’ faults, because they didn’t send the full squad lists in time for the insurance to be taken out, which resulted in a delayed start to the season and an inability to ensure the players were covered before the season kicked-off. There has thus far been no suggestion that this issue will be resolved before the start of the 2019-20 season, which has been hit by another delay and will now start on December 7th.
Furthermore, in October, PNGFA Vice-President John Wesley Gonjuan was suspended from all football-related activity for two years and eight months by FIFA for “offering and accepting gifts” in violation of FIFA’s ethical code. Gonjuan was a key member in Chung’s administration, having been the Competition Manager for the 2016 U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup held in PNG, and having served as the President of the Port Moresby Soccer Association until his suspension.
Finally, if reports from local Facebook groups are to be believed, the four semi-finalists from the 2019 season are still yet to receive their prize money, because some clubs are yet to pay their full affiliation fees. Question marks remain over whether the NSL should allow clubs who haven’t paid their dues to continue in the competition; however, a case could be made that disqualifying teams who hadn’t paid may have caused too much disruption to the format of last season’s competition
With all that in mind, how can the PNGFA and the NSL organisers ensure that 2020 is a newer, fresher start than 2019 was?
The key is to get the right people in the right positions. I have had contact with several of the people currently involved with the PNGFA and other local organisations, and the signs are good: Yala Khanna, Member Associations Development Manager at the PNGFA since June 2019, has been an key influence on the success of this year’s Besta FA Cup and continues to work hard to maintain transparency within the organisation via the use of social media; Kamo Kini is a key Competition Manager in the Southern Region, having organised the Southern Leg of this year’s National Club Championship, and he has made a hugely positive impact both in terms of organisation and communication in 2019; while Paul Karambi is the new General Secretary of the Port Moresby Soccer Association since 2017, and his tireless hard work with the organisation and score-keeping for the past two seasons of the PMSA competitions has been excellent.
What connects all these people is their praise for Kapi Natto, whom they believe is having a positive effect on football in Papua New Guinea, and will continue to root out those not pulling their weight as long as he is afforded enough time.
Another big step that happened in October was the handing over of the lease of the PNG Football Stadium in Port Moresby to the PNGFA. Now fully in the hands of the football governing body for 99 years, there are high hopes that Kapi Natto and his team will be able to develop the ground to serve the national team in a more productive way.
These are small victories in a much larger fight to bring PNG back to a level where they might enjoy some more success at a continental and international level. With arguably the two biggest clubs PNG has ever seen – Lae City and Hekari United – heading to the 2020 OFC Champions League earlier next year, representation of PNG at this level has never been stronger. However, there is still a lot of work to be done for the national team, which is still suffering from a dearth of friendly matches and has a long way to go if they’re to meet Kapi Natto’s initial target of qualifying for the 2026 World Cup.
The signs of improvement are there, there is no doubt about that. But more needs to be done, and harder lines needs to be taken with officials and clubs that are not pulling their weight.