With the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League set to kick off in just two days’ time, we’ve put together a full preview of the ten teams involved, including their previous achievements, current squad news, and a prediction as to where they might finish.
Thanks to the great social media team that FC Bougainville have put together, we know a great deal about FC Bougainville, and we think their chances this season look good. The side is the semi-pro parent club of Mungkas, a side which won the 2019 National Club Championship, and has won three of the last four Port Moresby Premier Divisions, and while being based in Port Moresby, the side consists predominantly of players hailing from the autonomous island of Bougainville (which, by the way, voted for independence in a landslide result this week). The squad looks good: led by David Passam, the defence is marshalled by Abel Redenut, Basil Jofari dictates the midfield like clockwork, while Gabriel Yanum and Timothy Mali impressed so much last season that they earned call-ups to the Olympic Qualifiers U-23 squad earlier this year. The club have also brought in 19-year-old striker Jonathan Allen, a bright young prospect who may well lead their attack. Expect this side to be one of the better teams behind the big two.
As the outgoing champions of the FFPNG-sanctioned breakaway National Premier League in 2018, having beaten Hekari United en route to the final, Gulf Komara, rebranded from Erema Gulf at the start of last season, ought to have had high hopes going into last season’s Southern Conference. However, a fairly under-the-radar performance throughout the season saw them finish just sixth out of eight teams in the conference. Coached by former PNG international goalkeeper David Aua, the make-up of this season’s squad is for the most part unknown: the side have only recently relaunched their social media presence ahead of the kick-off this weekend, so they’re a bit of an unknown entity. They will, however, boast former Tusbab Stallions captain Max Sengum, which is something of a scalp for the club. With Aua at the helm, they should keep things fairly tight, and given that this is their fifth consecutive season of competing at the national level, their experience should hold them in good stead.
For how much longer can Hekari United rely on the likes of long-time captain David Muta and Solomon Islander coach Jerry Allen to bring back the glory days of that triumphant OFC Champions League title in 2010? That was almost ten years ago now, but Muta and Allen are still around. That said, the squad remains packed with international talent: Koriak Upaiga is one of the best defenders in the country, while Ishmael Pole is establishing himself as a very competent goalkeeper. The identity of their regular striker this season is, however, thus far unknown, with previous talisman Tommy Semmy having left for Hamilton Wanderers in New Zealand. Can Hekari win back the crown they have surrendered to Lae City for the past five seasons? They will need to have strengthened their squad, but they will certainly not be lacking in desire.
While FC Kutubu is technically a ‘new’ franchise, they’re actually a new parent club of Aporo Mai FC, a debuting club from last season’s competition. Mathew Witu, formerly the assistant coach of Hekari United, coaches both sides, so the home and away fixtures against former boss Jerry Allen will be fascinating to watch. Witu will be keen to retain some of the more impressive players from the Aporo Mai side of last season, but according to the latest reports, he only has two players with any sort of previous NSL experience: last year’s talisman Samuel Kini, a former international, and Andrew Apo, who played for Blue Kumuls last season. Given that Aporo Mai only managed to finish 4th in the Highlands Conference last season, we think it’ll be difficult for FC Kutubu to make a real impact on the competition, but keep an eye on their home games – as the only side in the Highlands, they’ll benefit from tired opponents more so than other clubs, so that might help them out more than you’d think.
The reigning five-time champions have everything to lose and not much to gain: last year they won their fifth consecutive title after a tense and goalless Grand Final against Hekari before eventually triumphing on penalties. They were carried to the final by some of the biggest names in PNG football – including Nigel Dabinyaba, Raymond Gunemba and Emmanuel Simon. Retaining the services of these players will be essential to both their domestic campaign and their OFC Champions League hopes: Simon and Dabinyaba are currently in the Solomon Islands playing for Malaita Kings, while there are rumours Gunemba is looking for a full-time contract outside of the Pacific Islands, having spent three months with Geelong Soccer Club in Australia. All three may yet return in time for the opening weekend, but if they continue to impress, how long will they stick around before they’re poached by bigger and better sides? Coach Peter Gunemba will, as always, play a key role in retaining these men and training up a team to fit alongside them, and while their long-term future may be uncertain, expect Lae City to be right up there once again.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride: Morobe United have finished in third place in the National Soccer League on four different occasions, including last season, having made the Grand Final only once, back in the 2009/10 season. That year, they lost 5-0 to a dominant Hekari United side, while last time out, they impressed in the Northern Conference, taking points off eventual winners Lae and qualifying for the playoffs ahead of a resurgent Besta PNG United. This year, they will once again be attempting to break up the domination of the nation’s two top teams, but the squad just doesn’t have the same star quality as the clubs they’re chasing. The side will be captained by ex-Hekari man Jeremy Yasasa, while Alex Kamen was part of the full-strength Pacific Games national team from earlier this year. However, coach Jonathan Jack admitted earlier today that the bulk of his players were new, and that many of last season’s squad had joined new side Vitiaz United. Can Jack lead this side to the playoffs in spite of this exodus?
One thing is clear: Morobe Wawens will want to forget last season. Having earned an impressive qualification for the OFC Champions League in 2018, the club capitulated on the continent, and domestically didn’t do much better, becoming embroiled in the controversy regarding the death of Laiwaden FC goalkeeper Mikes Gewa and finishing just 7th in last year’s Northern Conference. However, it appears we are all change: PNG national team coach Bob Morris is now on board as first team coach alongside manager Jossie Kava, which is a big surprise, while it appears the club also has a new president, Andrew Namuesh, with former president Peter Seske now acting as vice-president. Three of this year’s squad have Champions League experience: defender Ferdallas Namuesh, utility player Kenneth Pilailo, and goalkeeper Jason Bendi, while much of the rest of the squad has come from local trials. The club stated that the previous two seasons have seen them compete without a first team coach – how much of a difference is the addition of Bob Morris going to make?
Several readers may be surprised that Star Mountain are involved in this year’s competition, given their pretty dreadful debut season last time around. The side finished seventh in the Southern Conference, and there may well be a case that others, such as Eastern Stars or Central United, deserved the spot in this year’s league ahead of Star Mountain. However, it’s about which clubs pay the fees, and not about which club has the more illustrious history, so here we are. Not much, if anything, is known about the side, with no social media presence to speak of and very little local media coverage of their squad. In this case, we can only really base our prediction on last season’s performance, and it doesn’t look good.
As we saw last year, just because a club has an excellent social media presence and great branding, that doesn’t mean results will reflect that outward professionalism. Stallions finished dead last in the Northern Conference last season, although signs have been encouraging since then: the club’s feeder side, Tusbab Blue Kumuls, won the Madang Soccer Association competition in September, and several of the players in this season’s NSL squad have been promoted from that title-winning side. The squad actually looks pretty good: newly-elected captain Nigel Malagian has come from Eastern Stars, while young midfielder Stahl Gubag has already represented the country at full international level. The club is well managed and well organised; I’d like to see them do well.
An interesting new inclusion to the NSL, Vitiaz United is a side that has just been promoted to the top division of football in the Port Moresby Soccer Association, having won Division One earlier this year. With the majority of their players having joined from Morobe United, the club could enjoy a decent season despite being newcomers, especially given that several of their players will have previous NSL experience under their belts. However, with not much else known about the side, it’s difficult to see them making much of an impact, at east for the time being.