When Papua New Guinea took to the field against the Seychelles in Singapore on the 8th of April it had been almost 1000 days since they’d last played an international opponent.
Well, 993 days to be exact. That last game coming in the final of the 2019 Pacific Games in Suva, against a Samoa side coached by English-born coach Nicola Demaine.
Plenty has happened between then and now, most notably (global pandemic aside) Demaine’s switch of allegiance from Samoa to Papua New Guinea.
The former OFC Women’s Football Development Officer is no stranger to PNG players, having been part of the coaching staff when Papua New Guinea attended the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China back in 2014.
Demaine has her work cut out for her.
While Papua New Guinea retained their hold on the Pacific Games, a less than stellar series of performances at the 2018 OFC Women’s Nations Cup saw them beaten by a formidable Fiji in the semi-final, missing out on a chance to challenge New Zealand in the final.
But after years of getting by on talent alone, the return of the Women’s National Conference Soccer League after a very lengthy hiatus means an increase in opportunities to play, and a growing pool of young talent to draw from.
The goal for Papua New Guinea and their new coach, is winning the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in July which will afford them with one more opportunity to qualify for a first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup spot through the FIFA Play-Off Tournament, an inter-confederation qualifying tournament offering three final berths at the pinnacle event in 2023.
The Tri-Series in Singapore was step one in the preparations for that July qualifier, with results playing second fiddle to Demaine’s desire to see the team in action and testing themselves against quality opponents.
“It was definitely a worthwhile experience,” Demaine said.
“It helped us establish our on and off-field processes during the games and the level of challenge was excellent for our first games since 2019. It’s always good to give the new players international experience in a friendly, rather than in an important fixture.
“The trip ticked a lot of boxes for us.”
Opening with a 9-0 victory over the unranked Seychelles, Papua New Guinea followed that up with a narrow 1-0 win over their hosts, 135th ranked Singapore.
Ranked 49th in the world Papua New Guinea could have expected a better result from that second friendly, however as Demaine pointed out as long as the players continue to learn and grow from matches like this, the experience is a positive one.
“We definitely tidied up a few things from game to game and we are starting to see the tactics slowly emerge as habits,” she explained.
“An obvious positive was the number of different goal scorers. We can’t rely on one or two players to score goals, it has to be the player in the best position to do it.
“That said, I have a much clearer picture of the major work-ons that will have the biggest impact going forward, and I have a better understanding of the individual needs of the players.”
Getting out of the region was another important factor of the trip to Singapore.
“I think it is important to measure ourselves outside of OFC as our ultimate goal is to participate in the inter-confederation play-off.”
With the regional qualifiers quickly approaching, knowing where to put the focus over the next couple of months will be a huge benefit if Papua New Guinea dreams of advancing are to translate into reality.
“We plan to get the group together for a good length of time going forward, add in a few players in positions where we are short – especially goalkeepers – and get as many games together as we can.
“We have a lot of experience in the team, even the likes of 18-year-old Alsaiso Gossie, with her participation in the OFC U-19s and the Pacific Games, shows a confidence beyond her years.
“The next goals are around building team work, and of course fitness for the tournament, for everyone.”
The Women’s National Conference Soccer League got underway in late March with the Southern Conference, followed by the Northern, Highlands and NGI Conferences.
There are 24 teams registered for the 2022 season, including six sides in the NGI Conference in Bougainville participating for the first time.