Since its formation in 2006, the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League has been hugely dominated by one team – PRK Hekari United. The side has won all five previous championships, and look to be on course for number six. Try as they might, the rest of the league simply cannot stop the Port Moresby-based club from strolling to victory.
This dominance is party due to Hekari’s superior squad, which boasts multiple internationals from Fiji and the Solomon Islands as well as PNG. Midfielder Pita Baleitoga has captained Fiji, experienced defender Taniela Waqa has been capped 32 times by the same country and Andrew Lepani, another midfielder, has a record of almost a goal every other game for Papua New Guinea. In short, Hekari have the best of both worlds, employing top players from at home and abroad.
Chief among the clubs challenging Hekari for the NSL crown is Eastern Stars FC. Only joining the league in 2008, the side has quickly emerged as Hekari’s main threat, finishing as runners-up in 2010-11. Stars are also able to boast several Papua New Guinea internationals, such as club captain Cyril Muta and midfielder Michael Foster, as well as Solomon Islanders Timothy Joe and Karol Kakate. Despite what has been an impressive start to life for the club, the gap between Hekari and the rest of the league is best highlighted by the fact that despite currently lying in second place, Eastern Stars trail Hekari by 8 points – and Hekari have a game in hand.
Similarly, Hekari’s points total alone is more than that of league strugglers Petro Souths, Tukoko University and Bulolo United combined. Thankfully, results when the also-rans meet have been more varied: Petro Souths were annihilated 7-0 by Eastern Stars on the opening day, but won two of their next three games and have since claimed the scalp of third-placed PNG United. Bottom club Bulolo United were comfortably beaten by mid-table outfit Gigira Laitepo and even lost 3-0 to Tukoko, a side just one point better off. The fact that they then not only held but fully matched Eastern Stars away from home in a 0-0 draw shows just how open and unpredictable the rest of the league is.
It may be several years before other clubs reach a position where they are able to challenge Hekari for silverware, but it is clear that the quality of the National Soccer League is improving each year. Five years ago it would have been unlikely that players from abroad would even consider moving to a Papuan club. The Fijian and Solomon leagues have traditionally held up better against teams from New Zealand in the OFC Champions League, but the tide may be turning.
The league is also managing to tempt Papua New Guinean players back to their homeland. Nathaniel Lepani left the country in 2002 to join college side Menlo Oaks in the USA, before joining Brisbane City in Australia. Lepani returned to PNG in 2009 and has re-made a name for himself with Eastern Stars and Gigiria Laitepo.
While the National Soccer League may look unappealingly one-sided from the outside, the truth is that football in Papua New Guinea is on the up. It may not be long before Brazilian and African imports begin to further improve the quality of the league, and although Hekari’s dominance is clear to see, the open nature and unpredictability of the majority of fixtures makes this championship one worth keeping an eye on.