After chasing the same dream over the past eight editions of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup, Papua New Guinea has finally earned the title of the first-ever Pacific Island nation to win the competition.
The honour followed months of hard work from the players, coaches and management alike to ensure the everything was perfectly aligned for success, and came on the back of a first half performance unlike any we’d seen from the side so far in the tournament.
While Papua New Guinea have dominated the Pacific Games, winning five consecutive gold medals since the women’s football tournament was introduced in 2003, top honours in the confederation’s premier women’s competition have eluded them despite appearing in every edition since their debut in 1989.
Helping shape the side’s tilt at the title was English-native, Nicola Demaine, who praised the players for their response to the pressure of taking on a side buoyed by home support, while also managing the burden of being labelled the tournament favourites early on.
“I think that was a proper test,” Demaine said of the final against Fiji.
“They were really organised, quick with their passing and so it was a really good game for us.”
Papua New Guinea bolted out the gate in the first half with talismanic skipper Meagen Gunemba opening the scoring after pouncing on a Fiji defensive error, before Ramona Padio found the back of the net for Papua New Guinea’s second.
A lapse in concentration at the back allowed Fiji to pull themselves back into the match through Cema Nasau ahead of the break, setting up a crucial second half for both sides.
“Ultimately, what we came here to do was to be in the final and to get the win,” Demaine said.
“We had everybody to choose from, we had Marie (Kaipu) back on the wing and everyone was really up for the game. I thought we had complete control in the first half,” she reflected.
“Physically, I thought we were up to the task. But Fiji came out firing in the second half and we just couldn’t get our rhythm again and keep hold of the ball.
“They can’t score when we have the ball and there were just too many searching balls that went straight back to them and back to us. I would have liked to have seen us more in control in the second half, but that’s finals football isn’t it.
“They came at us with everything they had and we weathered it, I guess. I backed our defenders and goalkeeper and knew if we had the legs to stick it out, we would be doing that until the end.”
The final was a good test, but the journey to that point wasn’t without its challenges either.
In the quarter-final Tonga not only took a two-goal lead, forcing Papua New Guinea to come from behind, but then scored a late equaliser that forced both extra-time and penalties. Extra game-time in the legs the side hardly needed ahead of a semi-final with 2019 Pacific Games finalists Samoa.
However, as always, Papua New Guinea rose to the challenge to defeat Paul Ifill’s side 3-0 and progress to the final.
“I think there were some learnings along the way, definitely,” Demaine said.
“It was important to be able to deal with some of the long balls and I think over the course of the competition they have learned a lot more about themselves as players, and a lot more about how we want to play going forward.”
Papua New Guinea have now qualified for the Play-Off Tournament for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia New Zealand 2023™ to be hosted in Auckland and Hamilton from the 18-23 February 2023.
A little over seven months away and with the likes of Chile, Thailand, Haiti and Senegal among the other sides set to participate, there is only a short period of time for Papua New Guinea to celebrate their historic achievement before the work gets underway once again.
“We’ve sort of been training for Stage Two this whole time,” Demaine explained.
“There’s now only six months until that starts and we needed to be starting early. I think that’s why we found it easier to play against the teams that actually play, rather than those that kick and chase. I don’t expect to find that at the next stage, it will be teams that can play football.”
The plan is to now try and line up some international friendlies against top sides in close geographic distance to Papua New Guinea in order to really test the players ahead of the next challenge.
“We started building the physicality and fitness that they’ll need for the next stage and it will be good to see if we can get some friendlies against top 50 ranked sides.
“We can go and lose and find out what that’s like, so we can then go and not lose when we get to the Play-Off Tournament.
“It will be interesting for sure. Chinese Taipei are ranked just a couple of places above us so if we can get a game against them, or Thailand, who knows. It’s football, you never know what can happen.”