Hekari United were easily the most impressive side on the opening day of the 2021 Papua New Guinea National Soccer League, after they put six goals past Star Mountain to send a message to the other teams in the competition that they are a force to be reckoned with. More than anything else, though, this weekend was a chance to see most of the teams in action for the first time in almost a year and a half.
Hekari United lined up at the PNG Football Stadium in Port Moresby with several familiar faces, including Michael Foster, Koriak Upaiga, and Daniel Joe, and it was experienced strikers Kolu Kepo and Nigel Dabinyaba that made the difference in this clash against Star Mountain, with both men scoring two goals in the rout.
However, the side also managed to blend a mix of youth with their experience, with several youngsters coming into the side – most notably, Andrew Baniau, the 19-year-old goalkeeper signed from Vitiaz United, and 19-year-old defender Moses Joe, who lined up alongside Clement Willis – another new recruit from FC Bougainville – at centre-back.
But there was a breakout performance from young midfielder Solomon Rani, who turned 19 in May, who dictated play in the midfield alongside captain David Muta and also provided a surprise attacking threat, also managing to pick up two goals to draw him alongside Kepo and Dabinyaba on the scoresheet, with Star Mountain only managing a consolation.
In the second match in the Papuan capital, last year’s 4th-placed side Gulf Komara got their campaign off to a winning start with a narrow victory over returning Central Dabari FC. The decisive goal came courtesy of Jordan Kaven, the side’s joint top scorer from last season, whose goal earned them a 1–0 opening day victory.
In the final game of the day, we saw glimpses of a bright future as Southern Youth FC managed to secure a morale-boosting win against Tavur FC, the only side hailing from an island province in this year’s competition. Two goals from Nathaniel Eddie Jack were enough to see Southern Youth past their opponents, with Tavur’s Melky Kaiwa scoring the consolation.
In the Northern Conference, several fans were keen to see how Lae City FC and Lae City Dwellers would fare as two separate entities, and it both sides showed they still know how to find the winning formula despite neither side looking particularly fluid in their opening fixtures.
It was the turn of Lae City first, who took on Morobe Wawens at the Sir Ignatius Kilage Stadium in Lae, and despite the side dominating the first half of the match, they were unable to score more than two goals, with Nigerian recruit Jibola Afonji and ex-Tusbab Stallions front man Stahl Gubag giving the side a 2–0 lead at half-time.
However, Wawens grew into the game, and had periods of supremacy in the second half, even managing to pull a goal back through Bernard Purari. However, led by Alwin and Felix Komolong, the Lae City defence stood firm and held out until the final whistle, getting the league champions off to a winning start.
Next up was Tusbab Stallions against a much-strengthened Morobe United, who had recruited several players from the withdrawing Vitiaz United, including influential midfielder Eliud Fugre and lethal finisher Mathew David – who scored four goals in a 6–3 victory over Stallions in last year’s competition.
However, it was Stallions who came away with the victory, thanks to a first-half goal from Maskulan Pulung followed by a magnificent defensive display led by captain Richie Apisa and newly recruited goalkeeper Glen Agat.
The final game in Lae saw the return of Lae City Dwellers, who were given a somewhat straightforward opening-day fixture against Northern Youth FC, but despite the apparent ease of their fixture, they made hard work of it. Goals from Joel Seske, Raymond Gunemba and Michael Joseph were almost cancelled out by two goals from the Northern Youth boys, including a late goal which made the final few moments a little edgy for the Dwellers’ lads, and they will need to improve if they’re to stand a chance of challenging for the title and a triumphant return to NSL football.