As far as achievements go, a position of 187 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is unarguably humble, however for Papua New Guinea it merely marks the first step towards planned incremental development. In fact, September marked a return to the global listing for the Oceania nation following a lengthy period of inactivity.
In fact, Papua New Guinea's matches at the 2011 Pacific Games during August and September were their first since July 2007, with the four-year hiatus the reason for the nation’s disappearance from the world ranking. A successful return to the international arena in New Caledonia indicates Papua New Guinea have genuine reason for optimism.
Though missing a berth in the latter stages of the Pacific Games, PNG will take solace from their performances amongst the region’s most experienced nations. Competing were eight of the Oceania Football Confederation’s 11 Member Associations, namely American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu, with New Zealand the only major absentee.
PNG secured a victory over Cook Islands, and also against OFC Associate Member Kiribati, a result that didn’t accrue points towards the Ranking. There was also an impressive 1-1 draw with Tahiti, who went on to win bronze at the tournament. The only defeat was a 2-0 reversal against Fiji, a nation with long-standing pedigree in the Pacific. However, that defeat proved costly with the team edged out of the semi-finals on goal difference, with Tahiti holding a two-goal advantage.
Fiji will be the scene of Papua New Guinea’s next major landmark with Oceania’s second round of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers. PNG received a bye through the opening stage, but have been dealt no favours by the draw for next June’s tournament, which doubles as the OFC Nations Cup, with the victor qualifying for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Papua New Guinea’s primary objective however will be to reach the third and final round of Brazil 2014 qualifying in the Oceania Zone. To do that, they must complete a top-two finish in a group which also includes South Africa 2010 participants New Zealand, host nation Fiji, and former OFC Nations Cup finalists Solomon Islands.
While the national team may have been in mothballs for several years, growth in other areas has been undeniable. Most notably, Hekari United, based in the capital Port Moresby, achieved the unthinkable by winning through to the FIFA Club World Cup. With a team comprising players from a diverse group of Pacific Island nations, the club became the first from outside New Zealand to win the OFC O-League and, with it, thereby securing an appearance at UAE 2010. Not only did Hekari’s run attract much attention in a highly rural nation where Rugby League has traditionally been the number one sport, but it allowed national team personnel, such as Kema Jack, to gain invaluable international experience.
PNG also issued a statement of intent by securing former Australia coach Frank Farina as national team mentor last February. Alongside New Zealand’s Ricki Herbert, Farina, who spent part of his childhood in Papua New Guinea, is the most experienced national team coach in Oceania having guided the Socceroos between 1999 and 2005, leading the team through two FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns and two FIFA Confederations Cup tournaments.
Papua New Guinea’s brief FIFA World Cup history follows an unusual pattern, having recorded stunning results in their only two previous campaigns for France 1998 and Germany 2006. Indeed, their first FIFA World Cup qualifying attempt included what is surely their greatest ever result; a 1-0 home victory over New Zealand in 1997. Their performances four years ago were again competitive and included a draw against Vanuatu. The coming 12 months will reveal all, but the portents suggest Papua New Guinea are capable of taking their place alongside the continent’s elite.