Planned PNG ‘Conference Competition’ cancelled due to lack of interest

Hekari United and Toti City battled out last year’s National Soccer League Grand Final. Photo: PNGFA

News emerged today that the planned Papua New Guinea National Soccer League ‘Conference Competition’, due to take place at a slightly lower level than the ‘Premier Competition’, has been scrapped due to lack of interested clubs.

This is another blow to preparations for the start of the 2019/20 season, which, as was reported last week, has already been delayed twice. The top division of PNG football should have started last weekend, on the 16th November, before being delayed to the final weekend in November and, now officially, to the 7th December.

After 26 clubs took part in last season’s successful conference-based league system, the NSL board had made ambitious plans to take that total to 32, with 8 taking part in the ‘Premier Competition’, and 6 taking part in each of the four regions of the country in a ‘Conference Competition’. We learnt last week that 12 teams applied for the Premier Division, a figure which the board wanted to narrow to 8, and today’s press release indicated that there were in fact a further 11 teams willing to take part at the conference level – 4 from the Southern Region, 2 from the Northern and Highlands, and 3 from the New Guinea Islands.

Have the NSL therefore become a victim of their own ambitions here? 23 clubs in total have registered interest in playing NSL football across all divisions this year, so it would be a shame if the only division taking place was an 8-team ‘Premier Competition’, which would exclude the remaining 15 clubs. These are clubs who may well have already begun preparations ahead of the new season expecting to play competitive football, with several players in their ranks hoping to impress and earn selection for the national team in the coming months and years. What will happen to these teams if they are denied this access to competitive football at the highest level in the country?

It remains to be seen whether the nationwide ‘Premier Competition’ will be expanded to include a larger number of clubs as a result of this cancellation.

For an outsider, it’s important to understand how challenging the logistics of football in Papua New Guinea can be. It is difficult to lump all the clubs in the Highlands and New Guinea Islands into one nationwide division and play home and away games, because transportation costs are high, and the journeys themselves can often be long, treacherous sea crossings by boat or arduous passages down from the mountainous regions. This was probably one of the key reasons why the NSL and the PNGFA chose to work under a conference system last season – so that the highest level of football was accessible to any club, anywhere in the country.

With larger cities boasting better transport links in the Northern and Southern regions, it’s less of a challenge for clubs from those regions to play home and away matches every week.

We’re not sure where the NSL goes from here: 23 clubs interested is still a good amount, and the competition seems to be an attractive proposition, despite what the doomsayers on Facebook have been saying following the announcement earlier this morning. Do they expand the top division into two conferences, and include all the clubs who have expressed an interest? Do they stick to the plan and go with a fixed number of 8? Or do they find a third option somewhere in the middle, which strikes a balance between including the clubs interested while keeping control of the difficult logistics involved?

Watch this space.

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