Both representatives of Papua New Guinea, Lae City and Hekari United, were eliminated at the Group Stage of the 2020 OFC Champions League after a win, a draw and a defeat wasn’t enough for either side to finish in the top two of their group. The early eliminations indicate something systematically wrong with football in Papua New Guinea, especially given the rise of clubs from nations on a similar level to PNG in recent years, such as Vanuatu, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands.
Firstly, we wanted to take a look at the competition record of Papua New Guinea, along those of nations of a similar level, in the OFC Champions League since Hekari’s victory in 2010. We graphed the results of this record, which you can see below. To note: in terms of colour coding, we have counted a second-place Group Stage finish pre-2017 on the same scale as a post-2017 quarter-final, as they essentially translate to the same thing. We included all the so-called Developed Association that currently do not need to qualify for the competition, but excluded New Zealand:
With this data in mind, we’re able to deduce a fair amount. The following things stand out:
Papua New Guinea sides finish bottom of the group most often.
Since Hekari’s incredible victory in the 2009/10 competition, PNG sides have finished in 4th position in the group stage more often than any other nation. Six times: Hekari (4), Madang FC (1) and Morobe Wawens (1). The most recent failures, in 17/18 and 18/19, saw Madang and Morobe Wawens qualify as PNG representatives mainly because of the league split, which saw Hekari, among others, become ineligible to qualify for the OFC competition. During those seasons, the standard in the National Soccer League was also exceptionally low, with Lae City essentially able to bulldoze the competition, and with their closest rivals not up to the high standard set by Hekari in previous years.
Papua New Guinea sides haven’t made the semi-finals for ten years.
Another quite alarming deduction we can see from the graph is that since Hekari’s win, not a single PNG side has made at least the semi-finals of the competition. By contrast, Solomon Islands’s clubs have reached the semis once, Vanuatu sides three times, Tahiti sides four times, Fiji sides four times, and New Caledonia sides five times. It gets worse: if we compare PNG sides to their closest rivals in this analysis, Solomon Islands, in terms of quarter-final (or equivalent) finishes, we see clubs from the Solomon Islands reach seven (including this year), while PNG trail again with just five: Hekari (3) and Lae City (2).
For a third metric, we split the graphic above in half, and measured nation’s clubs’ performance before and after 2014, to get a measure of whether they have been improving or not:
Papua New Guinea sides aren’t really improving.
Pre-2014, PNG clubs had three bottom-of-the-group finishes; post-2014 that’s the same. Hekari’s win in 2009/10 means they made the semi-finals or better once pre-2014; that hasn’t happened post-2014. One slight improvement has been the number of times PNG clubs have made the quarter-finals or better post-2014; but that may well be a result of two clubs taking part each year since 2015, rather than just one. They’re not particularly good numbers; especially when you consider the improvements seen in New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands and, to some extent, Tahiti, who have all either improved or stayed the same in all three categories. Vanuatu and Fiji were generally stronger before 2014 and seem to have been passed since then, although two qualifiers out of two this year for Vanuatu may suggest they’re back on the right track.
The next question is: why? What is going wrong in Papua New Guinea, that we’re not seeing the expected improvement, and that they’re performing on average worse than all the other Developed Associations in the OFC? To examine that, we’ll compare the domestic leagues of the two most-improved countries – Solomon Islands and New Caledonia – with that of Papua New Guinea, and see if there’s any correlation to be found.
We looked at the following four metrics: the number of clubs in the top division, to judge consistency; the number clubs in the top division that were retained from the previous season, to judge continuity; whether the system has promotion or relegation, to judge chances for lower-level teams; and whether the winner of the league was the same as the previous season, to judge the league’s overall competitiveness:
Let’s look at New Caledonia first: the top division is generally very consistent, with the clubs retained fluctuating only because of the differing numbers of promotion and relegation places. On that subject, it also has promotion and relegation, which allows clubs from different regions of the country to earn passage into the top division on merit. Furthermore, the winner of the league has been different to the previous season on seven of ten occasions, indicating the league is competitive and clubs feel challenged throughout the season. Some additional data: four of the eight clubs that were in the top division in 2010 have taken part in every single competition since. This is how a league system should be: promotion and relegation, the same clubs taking part every year, and competitiveness so that it’s not the same club winning every single year.
The Solomon Islands is run differently, but still has advantages: there’s no promotion and relegation, but the teams taking part are hugely consistent. If there are changes at all to the line-up, they are slight, with never fewer than seven teams having been retained from the previous season for the last ten years. Winners are slightly more predictable (Solomon Warriors have won five of the last ten competitions) but in general, teams are able to plan for the future, knowing that their place in the top division is secure for the following season. And that additional data: five of the eight clubs that were in the top division in 2020 have taken part in every single competition since. This is as good and as consistent as a league could be, given there’s no promotion and relegation.
Let’s take a look at Papua New Guinea: what a mess! While the number of teams in the top division is generally fairly consistent (the past five years excluded, thanks mainly to the league split and last year’s trial of four regional competitions), the number of teams retained from the previous season is desperately poor, giving teams and players low levels of continuity, meaning one year players could be at a team, and the next year they no longer have a team in the top division to play for. This leads to players hopping from club to club and having different teammates every year. How can you build decent chemistry if the people around you are different to the previous year? Furthermore, PNG has only seen two champions during this period, with two phases: Hekari dominance until 2014, and Lae City dominance thereafter. And that additional data: ZERO of the nine clubs that were in the top division in 2010 have taken part in every single competition since. Hekari would have been the sole club to have done so were it not for their absence due to the league split in 2017 and 2018. That essentially means that the nine of the ten clubs that are in this year’s National Soccer League didn’t even exist ten years ago. Compare that with the situation in the two countries above, and it’s quite a stark difference.
With all this in mind, is it any wonder that the same two clubs keep winning the NSL, yet fail to perform on the big stage? If you look beyond Lae City (a club which is only six years old) and Hekari United, which clubs can realistically provide a challenge to them domestically? Who can push them to really improve and lift their game week after week? This is the kind of competition they need to perform at OFC Champions League level, and they’re simply not getting it, because a club’s lifespan in PNG is simply not long enough.
So what’s the solution?
About a month ago, I posted the above graphic on social media platforms. It received high praise, and I was immediately asked to email the graphic, as well as my clarifying comments, to several people involved with the PNGFA and NSL. I will attempt to simplify my comments below, to simply explain how I believe a league system in Papua new Guinea should work.
The National Soccer League should remain the top division in the nation, but with two key differences: promotion and relegation, and the same teams every year. The latter is of vital importance. Clubs must be able to plan for the future so that they can eventually develop youth academies, scouting systems and the ability to gel a team together for many years. Only two teams have been able to do that, and they have been the ones that have won every competition since the NSL’s inception.
The NSL should be fed by four regional leagues from the four regions of the country. This would work similarly to last season’s NSL, and the top team in each division would earn promotion to the NSL. These leagues would then be fed by leagues from local associations (Level 3), the champions of which would then have the opportunity to enter the regional divisions at Level 2, probably via some sort of promotion playoffs.
It would take some time to establish a system like this, but Papua New Guinea is a large country and there are many teams that play at local level: the Port Moresby Soccer Association already has four divisions with promotion and relegation, while there are active leagues in Madang, Morobe, and several Highlands and Islands provinces. Of course, I would not expect this to happen next year, but gradual movement towards something like this, starting with a consistent NSL, would allow for greater competitiveness in the top division, for greater opportunities for players at smaller clubs to impress the bigger clubs’ scouts, and should lead to better performances from PNG teams in OFC competitions.
What do you think?