Category: Oceania



For most countries, a total of one point and one goal scored from five games would represent nothing but complete disaster. However, American Samoa are not most countries, and the spirited performances of the islands’ youngsters at the recent Oceania under-20 Championship in Fiji have offered hope for the team’s future – not least due to the emergence of promising forward Ryan Paaga.

The American Samoans’ performances and results in their opening two games will have particularly pleased coach Rupeni Luvu, providing hope that Thomas Rongen’s legacy with the senior team, one of higher professionalism and fitness levels that led to the team almost emerging from their preliminary qualifying group for the World Cup, can be replicated by all of the islands’ teams. Luvu’s boys kicked off the tournament in the Fijian capital with a 4-0 defeat, against the hosts and eventual winners, all the goals coming in the first half. Fiji would go on to qualify for the FIFA under-20 World Cup finals (with New Zealand automatically qualifying as hosts), making this result seem almost respectable.

However, very few would have foreseen American Samoa holding Papua New Guinea, coached by Oceania Footballer of the Century Wynton Rufer, to a draw two days later. The underdogs drew first blood through Sinisa Tua in first-half stoppage time, but they could well have had a penalty after just five minutes when Paaga went down under PNG goalkeeper Koniel Vagi’s challenge after racing through on goal. PNG’s blushes were somewhat spared by Frederick Simongi’s equaliser on the hour but despite having Rafael Rocha sent off late on for scrapping with a PNG substitute, American Samoa held on for a historic result: it is the first time they have avoided defeat in an under-20 game.

Keeper Maiava leads the team's pre-game huddle (pic: Brian Vitolio)

Keeper Maiava leads the team’s pre-game huddle (pic: Brian Vitolio)

Unfortunately, Luvu’s charges ran out of steam somewhat in the second half of the tournament, going down 4-0 to Vanuatu on 27th May and 5-0 to the Solomon Islands two days after that, although two of the Solomons’ goals were scored in the last 15  minutes. In their final game against New Caledonia, American Samoa were thrashed 9-0, though five of those goals were leaked in the second half as tiredness kicked in. That result may taint the success of the Papua New Guinea game, but it is clear that progress has been made: with the portly but likable Frederick Maiava between the posts, the under-20s set a national record for the longest time without conceding – 103 minutes across the second half of the Fiji game and the first hour against PNG.

Ryan Paaga epitomises this progress as much as anyone. Athletically gifted and with the raw skill to trouble defences, Paaga was American Samoa’s biggest goal threat throughout the tournament and can consider himself unfortunate not to have returned home with a first international goal to his name. If promising sportsmen like Paaga offer the biggest opportunity to the Football Federation American Samoa (FFAS), they also represent the biggest threat. The seventeen-year-old is equally gifted at rugby sevens and it is clear that the FFAS will have to do battle with the islands’ other sports federations to secure his services for future internationals.

Indeed, Paaga says the FFAS wasted little time in drafting him into the squad for Fiji upon his return from a  rugby tournament in Hong Kong, but he regrets that his sporting versatility makes it difficult to focus on one code in particular: “When I came back from Hong Kong the soccer federation contacted me to select me for this team…[I’ve] never really played soccer much…it’s tough for me because so many people want me to play rugby for their team, so I don’t get time to practice my soccer skills as much.”

Paaga has attracted interest from Samoan media for his American football exploits (pic: Samoa News)

Paaga has attracted interest from Samoan media for his American football exploits (pic: Samoa News)

Aside from the impressiveness of Paaga performing the most difficult role at the tournament – lone striker in a team that often strings every other outfield player across their own penalty area – so admirably, it shows that the FFAS faces almost a sporting cannibalism from the islands’ other governing bodies. Last year fellow forward and then-seventeen-year-old Shalom Luani starred as the senior team claimed their first ever international win, a 2-1 success over Tonga, and Luani’s two goals in the three-game World Cup qualifying series made him the country’s joint-top all-time scorer. The parallels to Paaga are uncanny, and Luani’s time is similarly divided between football and American football, though recently it seems the second sport is dominating his engagements.

Luani moved to Chabot College of California in 2012 and Paaga has also admitted his desire to win a scholarship to the U.S. mainland. Though it would be wrong to stand in the youngsters’ way as they seek to further their careers in a more competitive environment, the diaspora of the islands’ talent represents a big headache for the FFAS; getting players back from the mainland to play in friendlies or qualifiers is difficult financially and logistically.

For now at least, Luvu and FFAS chairman Tavita Taumua will be pleased that the leaps achieved by Rongen are now being replicated at youth levels. A  pairing of Paaga and Luani in attack would trouble any defence in the region and, with a blend of experience and promise behind them, is surely the way forward. It will be years before American Samoa can truly challenge for World Cup qualification, but if regular games are scheduled, and if the FFAS can promote football above the islands’ other sports, the 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001 that has haunted this team for so long can finally be consigned to the history books.


In this age of world football television coverage and instant internet connection, it’s unusual to have a team of unknown quantity at a major competition, but that’s exactly how Tahiti appear to many football fans looking forward to this month’s Confederations Cup in Brazil.

In fairness, it’s hardly surprising that few are familiar with either Tahiti or their players – this is the first time Toa Aito have qualified for a major tournament; they have never reached the World Cup finals, and last year’s Oceania Nations Cup victory – which earned Tahiti a place at the Confederations Cup – was the first time the country has come out on top in their region.

The turnaround in fortunes has been incredibly quick: historically an also-ran in the Oceania Confederation, as recently as 2007 Tahiti failed to even qualify for the Nations Cup, faring only marginally better than minnows Tuvalu and the Cook Islands in the qualification process. The team’s future looked bleak, and even the most optimistic of Tahitians would have ruled out any major success in the foreseeable future. Credit must be given to the Fédération Tahitienne de Football, who recognised the need for change and have managed an impressively rapid rate of improvement.

Tahiti celebrate an unlikely triumph at the 2012 Nations Cup

Their efforts culminated in the hiring of Eddy Etaeta, an ex-Tahiti international as a player, as the country’s new manager in 2010. Etaeta, only 43 himself, has successfully blooded a new generation of youngsters – over half of the squad for the Confederations Cup are aged 24 and under. Many of these fresh faces came from the national under-20 team, which had reached the U-20 World Cup for the first time in Tahiti’s history in 2009.

Inevitably, for a nation of around 250,000, Etaeta’s squad is bereft of the kind of big names that Tahiti’s Group B rivals Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria possess, but the coach has been able to make one quality addition to his almost exclusively locally-based group. AS Nancy striker Marama Vahirua, born in the Tahitian capital Papeete, has finally linked up with his compatriots, having spent most of his career in France. Vahirua is set to make his international debut at the unusually ripe age of 33, but his vast experience at Ligue 1 level should prove beneficial for a Tahiti squad lacking in knowledge of European playing styles.

His playing CV may be significantly more impressive than his team-mates’, but Etaeta insists there will be no favourable treatment in the dressing room: “We don’t have any key players. We have always put the spotlight on the bigger picture: the state of mind and being a group. For me, the star is the whole team.” Nevertheless, Vahirua looks like the side’s best bet for a goal at the finals.

A cursory glance at the remainder of Etaeta’s squad list returns the oddity of no fewer than four players with the same surname: brothers Alvin, Lorenzo  and Jonathan Tehau will all be competing for midfield places, while their cousin Teaonui has recently made the breakthrough to the senior side as a promising forward. Says Alvin, “I’m very proud to play in the national team with my family. We are a unit…I think it helps the team as a whole.”

Captain Nicholas Vallar also boasts professional experience, having spent three years at Montpellier; after spells at lower-league clubs in France and Portugal, the 29-year-old returned home in 2009 to play for AS Dragon, Tahiti’s current league champions. Striker Steevy Chong-Hue, of mixed Chinese-Tahitian heritage, similarly made the jump to Europe – joining Belgium’s BX Brussels, recently taken over by Vincent Kompany – before re-signing for AS Dragon.

Tahiti will play Spain at the Maracanã on 20 June – slightly more luxurious surroundings than their 10,000 capacity Stade Hamuta

With the 2012 Nations Cup final Tahiti’s last competitive fixture, Etaeta set up a game  in February of this year against Australian outfit Sydney FC, which the A-League franchise comfortably won 4-0. A more recent tour of Chile yielded wins over Universidad de Chile’s under-20 team and second tier Deportes Magallanes, but in their last warm-up game Tahiti were thrashed 7-0 by Chile’s under-20 side.

Results haven’t exactly been reassuring ahead of the country’s biggest test yet, then, and even the two victories are of doubtful use: the gulf in class between the Chilean second division and world champions Spain is wider than Etaeta’s grin will be if Tahiti pull off an upset or two later this month. However, the Fédération Tahitienne de Football have defended the decision to play low-key opposition, citing the need to “build confidence for the future”. Etaeta concurs: “We’re not in denial – we know 8-10 weeks of professional training isn’t going to make up for the 10 years of professionalism that separates us from Spain or Uruguay.”

However, the mild confidence-building of those wins will surely have been ruined by the 7-0 hammering which followed. Etaeta will have a huge job on his hands if he is to convince his players they are capable of taking on Xavi, Iniesta and co, and the flight to Brazil the day after the under-20 defeat was no doubt in more sombre spirits than is healthy given the size of the task ahead.

And the team’s spirit will have been further damaged by Tahiti’s disastrous 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign which ended in elimination in March – with Toa Aito having just one win and two goals to their name after six games. Upsets in Brazil, then, are unlikely, but at least Etaeta is realistic in his targets for the upcoming tournament: “to not concede any goals in a half would be impressive in itself. But above all, to score a goal would be a huge achievement.” That seems reasonable, and you have to hope the minnows have a Hollywood ending to a story no-one could have dreamt up a year ago.


The sixth and final round of the 2014 Oceania region World Cup qualifying group ended on Tuesday with New Zealand completing a perfect qualifying campaign, winning all six games, while second-placed New Caledonia recorded a 1-0 win over Tahiti. After beating the Solomon Islands 2-0 in their final group game, New Zealand will face the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF region in an inter-continental play-off in November for a place at the World Cup proper.

Solomon Islands 0

New Zealand 2 (Payne 3,88)

Their place in the inter-continental play-off already confirmed, New Zealand boss Ricki Herbert opted to send the majority of his first-team squad back to their clubs, travelling to the Solomon Islands with a team largely made up of fringe players. With the Solomons also fielding a much-changed line-up – only captain Henry Fa’arodo and winger Benjamin Totori survived from the 2-0 loss to Tahiti four days earlier – it was destined to be a stop-start game with both sets of players unfamiliar with their team-mates.

It was Blackburn Rovers striker Tim Payne who did the most to impress Ricki Herbert, opening the scoring on three minutes from fully 25 yards. Employed “in the hole” behind the main striker, Payne would prove to be a thorn in the Solomons’ side throughout, and will surely be rewarded for this lively display with more senior call-ups in the future.

Tim Payne boosted his chances of international football with a brace

Fa’arodo provided the home side’s biggest threat, and after two free-kicks had earlier sailed over the crossbar, the midfielder managed to force Jacob Spoonley into a fine stop on 22 minutes. The strike led to a spell of increased pressure by the Bonitos, but their momentum was halted by an enforced water break as Tahitian referee Averii Jacques acknowledged the searing heat in Honiara.

New Zealand looked the sharper side after the water break, and Kosta Barbarouses came within a whisker of doubling the All Blacks’ lead when his effort grazed the crossbar just before half-time. Looking for only their second win in the group stage, the Solomons took the game to their visitors in the second half but were frustrated by a stubborn New Zealand defence showing why it has conceded just two goals in the six games.

And it was the All Blacks who had the last laugh as Payne grabbed his second of the game with just two minutes of normal time remaining, pouncing to score after Barbarouses’ shot had been blocked. Solomons coach Jacob Moli has work to do, and will quickly need to establish who his best starting XI are; his team finished bottom of the group on goal difference, conceding an average of over three goals per game.

The performances of Payne and other fringe players will have given Ricki Herbert some pleasant selection headaches ahead of the play-off in November, but it was the inclusion of one player, defender Andrew Durante, which attracted particular attention from the media. Centre-back Durante, Australian by birth, became a naturalized New Zealand citizen at the start of this month and was included in the squad for the games against New Caledonia and Solomon Islands.

With New Zealand failing to receive official confirmation from FIFA that Durante was eligible to play, Herbert understandably chose not to field Durante against New Caledonia on 22 March, but with FIFA still playing hard to get, the coach handed Durante a debut in the hope that his selection would provoke a FIFA inquiry that would accelerate their eligibility confirmation.

New Zealand would actually encourage either the Solomons or the Oceania Football Confederation questioning Durante’s eligibility in order to get the matter deferred to FIFA – as the All Blacks’ performance manager Fred de Jong says, “It’s a waiting game for us. We are waiting to see if anything has come out of the game that would instigate an investigation into Durante’s eligibility.”

New Caledonia 1 (Lolohea 85)

Tahiti 0

New Caledonia ended a fine qualifying campaign on a high after recording a narrow win over Tahiti. Les Cagous took maximum points from their fixtures against Tahiti and the Solomon Islands, but their failure to take anything from their games against New Zealand cost them in the race to finish at the top of the group.

The first half followed the form-book, with the dominant hosts only denied by a combination of wasteful finishing and good goalkeeping by Tahiti captain Xavier Samin. Aided by a triple substitution early in the second half, New Caledonia continued their pressure after the break, while Tahiti struggled to create any clear-cut chances.

Tahiti’s Stanley Atani (left) battles for the ball

Just as the game looked like ending goalless – and therefore being, incredibly, the only draw of the entire group stage – New Caledonia finally made their dominance count with five minutes left on the clock. Cesar Lolohea’s volley ensured all three points stayed in Noumea, and that Tahiti were eliminated from the qualification process with just a solitary win to their name.

With Tahiti also having been soundly beaten 4-0 by Australian A-League side FC Sydney in February, Eddie Etaeta’s men look destined to be on the end of some heavy defeats in their 2013 Confederations Cup group later this year – which also includes world champions Spain, as well as star-studded Uruguay and Nigeria teams.


New Zealand guaranteed their position at the top of the group for 2014 World Cup qualification, and in doing so booked their place for a play-off against the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF region. Their opponents, New Caledonia, were subsequently eliminated from the qualification process, as were group stage strugglers Tahiti and the Solomon Islands, who also faced off in the group stage’s penultimate round of fixtures this weekend.

New Zealand (Killen 10, Smith 90+4)

New Caledonia 1 (Lolohea 56)

Regional heavyweights New Zealand ended plucky New Caledonia’s challenge for the group stage title with a dramatic 2-1 win in Dunedin. Second-placed New Caledonia needed a win to keep their chances of reaching Brazil alive, and battled admirably being cruelly denied an admirable draw when Tommy Smith headed the hosts into an inter-continental play-off in the fourth minute of injury time.

Both sides had chances in the opening stages of the game, but it was New Zealand who struck first when ex-Celtic striker Chris Killen converted Leo Bertos’ 10th-minute corner. The early goal changed the dynamic of the game, with New Caledonia now forced to come out of their shell in order to stand any chance of grabbing the three points they needed.

New Zealand’s Tommy Smith (right) celebrates his last-gasp winner

Sure enough, Les Cagous upped the tempo, with attackers Georges Gope-Fenepej (the tournament’s top scorer), Cesar Lolohea and Bertrand Kai all looking dangerous, but on 26 minutes it was New Zealand who almost grabbed a second goal. Once more, a set-piece proved New Caledonia’s undoing, as Marco Rojas’ free-kick was met by a thundering Tommy Smith header, but the Ipswich defender’s effort bounced back off the crossbar.

The remainder of the first half progressed in end-to-end fashion; few clear chances were created, but, as half-time loomed on the horizon, Smith hit the bar for the second time in 20 minutes. A frantic goalmouth scramble in the visitors’ box ended with the centre-back toeing the ball onto the bar from close range, and New Caledonia survived until half-time with just the one goal conceded.

Les Cagous duly regrouped during the interval, and coach Alain Moizan’s team-talk had an almost immediate effect: just ten minutes of the second half had elapsed when Lolohea expertly controlled a Bertrand Kai cross on his chest before firing beyond Mark Paston, silencing the watching Kiwis in the stands.

Further goals proved elusive for both sides, and New Caledonia survived a scare in the last minute of normal time when Shane Smeltz’s penalty appeals were waved away by Australian referee Strebre Delovski, but the All Blacks were not to be denied. Just seconds remained when Smith made it third time lucky by reacting quickest to a loose ball and looping a header over visiting keeper Rocky Nyikeine.

New Zealand will be relieved to have avoided needing a result in the final game to confirm their group-stage win, but New Caledonia pushed them all the way and that is encouraging for the future of Oceanic football.

 

Tahiti 2 (Bourebare 28, Vallar 82)

Solomon Islands 0

Tahiti finally claimed their first group-stage victory at the fifth attempt, with a 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Solomon Islands. They were helped by Solomons player-coach Henry Fa’arodo naming a much-changed starting line-up – just Fa’arodo (obviously!) and Benjamin Totori survived from their last game, a 5-0 loss to New Caledonia.

Solomons’ player-coach Totori (green) tries to lead by example

The hosts began the game strongly, and it was little surprise when they opened the scoring midway through the first half when Donovan Bourebare crashed home a free-kick. Totori came closest to restoring parity for the Solomons, but Tahiti ensured their lead lasted until half-time.

The second half was disrupted by a string of yellow cards and substitutions for both teams, but it was Tahiti who came closer to scoring again. Steevy Chong Hue’s center was met by Yannick Vero, but the forward was brilliantly denied by Solomons custodian Sammy Osso. However, Tahiti sealed a deserved win eight minutes from time as skipper Nicolas Vallar beat Osso from range.

The two sides are now tied on three points with one match remaining, cast well adrift of New Caledonia and champions New Zealand. Tahiti will be reassured by a return to winning ways after their four-match losing streak, especially with the Confederations Cup in Brazil looming later this year. Solomons’ player-coach Totori has a lot of work to do on this showing if he is to turn his nation into genuine regional contenders, and his radical team selection may require several more matches to gel.


The Oceania region’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign will end next week, with the final group stage games on 22 and 26 of March determining who will represent the Oceania Football Confederation in a play-off against the fourth-placed CONCACAF nation for a spot in the tournament proper in Brazil next year.

Predictably, regional heavyweights New Zealand top the table after four games, having won every match so far, and only second-placed New Caledonia can still qualify for the inter-confederation play-off by topping the group ahead of the Kiwis. Naturally, then, all eyes will be on these two teams’ decisive clash on 22 March at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium; win and New Zealand guarantee their progress to the play-off, lose and they and New Caledonia will enter the last game on 26 March level on points.

All smiles: Gope-Fenepej has fired New Caledonia into second place

The group’s other contestants, Tahiti and Solomon Islands, have endured torrid qualifying campaigns – 2012 OFC Nations Cup winners Tahiti (who will be representing Oceania at this year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil) have lost every game, failing even to score once in the process. Seeing as this goal-shyness has been matched by an equally poor defensive record of  11 goals conceded in those four games, Tahiti could be in for some heavy defeats in Brazil if things fail to improve. Although the Solomon Islands do have one win to their name -against the hapless Tahitians, obviously – they have shipped even more goals, being drubbed 6-1 by New Zealand and 6-2 by New Caledonia.

New Caledonia’s unprecedented success has been largely thanks to the goals of Georges Gope-Fenepej, who has a record of almost a goal per game at international level since making his debut in August 2011. Gope-Fenepej netted a hat-trick in that 6-2 demolition of the Solomons, and with six goals in total he is by far the tournament’s leading scorer.  It’s unsurprising, then, that top-flight French side Troyes took a gamble on the frontman in 2012, and although Gope-Fenepej has only made one first-team appearance in his first season at the club, he has bagged three goals in nine games for Troyes’ reserve team. The 24-year-old’s impressive transfer will give hope to his compatriots and other players from a region whose stars rarely make it outside Australia and New Zealand.

New Caledonia legend Charles Teamboueon, who passed away last week

However, Les Cagous’ recent positive performances on-field have been somewhat overshadowed by the death last week of one of the best players the country has ever produced, Charles Teamboueon, who passed away at the age of 73. Teamboueon broke the mould by earning a call-up to the New Caledonia national team in 1965 despite playing in the national second division. As the man himself said, “That posed a few problems because at the time the national team was composed only of players from the first division.” However, Teamboueon emphatically justified his selection by scoring four times on his debut against German giants Stuttgart, inspiring his country to a 5-1 win.

Teamboueon opted to move to France in 1966, and within two years he had been selected for France’s national amateur team, reaching the quarter-finals of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. He retired in 1972 through injury, but was still managing New Caledonian side AS Mont-Dore as recently as 2007, guiding the club to a national Cup win that year.


Amidst the media frenzy surrounding the build-up to the imminent Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine, the other side of the globe has seen Oceania’s premier international competition quietly get underway. The competitors expect nothing more – teams from the region’s confederation only seem to make the headlines once in a blue moon: European media has abandoned Oceania since reporting perennial minnows American Samoa’s first-ever victory in November of last year. It appears the only way to attract attention from the West is by being hilariously awful for most of your footballing history, before providing media outlets with the perfect underdog story by somehow mustering the firepower to record a rare triumph.

The OFC Nations Cup, Oceania’s equivalent of the Euros, has seen some remarkable stories since its beginning three days ago. With a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil and progression to a World Cup qualification play-off at stake, all eight competitors have their eyes on the prize. Honiara, Solomon Islands – the host venue of the tournament – has impressed with both the enthusiasm of locals and the ability of the Lawson Tama Stadium, which will host every game, to cope with two matches every day.

The understated media presence – just two tournament commentators/analysts/presenters – provides a welcome, relaxed alternative build-up to an international tournament

Although favourites New Zealand have won both of their opening games, albeit narrowly, their poor performances in the merciless heat of the Solomons has fuelled neutral hopes that another nation can triumph this time around. Every previous edition of this tournament has seen either the All Whites or Australia (now competing in the Asian confederation) emerge victorious.

This year, however, New Zealand have struggled to a 1-0 win over fellow Group B heavyweights Fiji – considered to be second to New Zealand in the Oceanian rankings – in their opening game, thanks to an early goal from Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith. This close game represents a stark contrast to the same fixture 30 years ago, when the Fijians were destroyed 13-0 in what remains New Zealand’s biggest-ever victory.

The favourites failed to improve in the second group game: a similarly uncomfortable 2-1 victory against an unfancied Papua New Guinea team has left the rest of the tourament’s teams sniffing a potential upset. New Zealand are the only Oceania nation capable of fielding numerous Europe-based players – Papua New Guinea’s closest equivalent, former Serie A triallist Nathaniel Lepani was not even included in his country’s 30-man squad.

Against PNG, New Zealand relied on goals from 2010 World Cup veteran Shane Smeltz and West Bromwich Albion forward Chris Wood to see them through, even conceding a (slightly dubious) late penalty for Tony Lochhead’s handball. Papua New Guinea’s squad is comprised solely of Oceania-based players, with the furthest-flung inclusions only plying their trade in New Zealand or the Australian lower leagues; the All Whites boast Premier League talent, Papua New Guinea have Brisbane Premier League stars.  NZ coach Ricki Herbert did his best to hide his disappointment, saying “It was just about getting through this one – it was  39 degrees pitchside today.” The heat has arguably reduced New Zealand’s ability to simply outclass their opponents, resulting in gritty, determined performances replacing previous edition’s comfortable wins where the team was able to simply stroll to victory.

Tahiti receive a warm welcome from the enthusiastic locals upon touchdown in Honiara

By selecting the environmentally-challenging Solomon Islands (for the NZ players, anyway), the Oceania Football Confederation appears to have finally found a way to create a relatively level playing field at its championships. The defection of Australia to Asia in 2006, citing Oceania’s restricting lack of competitiveness, had lead to competitions becoming even more one-sided: whereas previous spoils had been shared between Australia and New Zealand, the removal of the All Whites’ closest neighbours and rivals resulted in NZ starting tournaments as overwhelming favourites, miles ahead of their opponents in quality and preparation.

As Nathaniel Lepani told me last week, “On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.” The difficult conditions in Honiara mean games between “New Zealand and the rest” will be more open, competitive and entertaining.

New Zealand will face increased competition this time around, as neutrals hope to see a new team celebrating come final day

Group A, meanwhile, has been dominated by an impressive Tahitian side that has taken maximum points from its opening two fixtures, including a 10-1 thrashing of tournament whipping-boys Samoa. With Vanuatu and New Caledonia hot on Tahiti’s heels and battling for second place, the final group fixtures over the next two days should provide plenty of drama and entertainment. Group A has also witnessed the Cup’s most exciting clash so far in the form of Tahiti’s thrilling 4-3 triumph over the nine-man New Caledonians. 3-0 and two men down, with less than 15 minutes remaining, New Caledonia launched an admirable fightback that was only ended by an 87th minute settler from Tahiti’s Roihau Degage. A perfect advert for Oceania football, this game had it all: penalties, red cards, handballs inside the box and late, late goals.

The Solomon Islands retain hope of progressing to the semi-finals, and are currently edging a disappointing Fiji team that has yielded just one point despite boasting talents such as Waitakere United’s Roy Krishna, hailed as “the best player in the [NZFC] league” by Oceania media.

Despite their struggles, New Zealand will remain the favourites to lift the Nations Cup and take another step towards qualification for the 2014 World Cup. However, the lack of national media coverage of events in Honiara – the NZ Herald failed to even include details of the tournament in its “Sports” section, preferring analysis of Maria Sharapova’s performance in the French Open – means that the country’s arrogance, confidence of victory, and apparent lack of concern over recent shortcomings leaves neutrals rooting for the underdogs even more. For the first time ever, a Nations Cup competition could be won by someone other than Australia and New Zealand.


At first glance, Papua New Guinea forward Nathaniel Lepani’s career may not appear to be particularly unique. Since beginning his footballing journey in 2001 with Cosmos Port Moresby, Lepani has flitted between his homeland and the upper echelons of Australia’s Brisbane Premier League, also enjoying a spell at USA college side Menlo Oaks in 2002-03.

However, what very few realise is that Lepani almost secured a contract with Italian club Brescia Calcio, then enjoying their best-ever campaign in Serie A by finishing 7th and boasting players such as Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo. Lepani trialled, unsuccessfully, for the club’s primavera youth squad in May 2001, a time the man himself describes “the year where I pursued my professional dream.”

Had he succeeded, Nathaniel would have gone down in history as Papua New Guinea’s most successful export. Few footballers from the country stray from the Oceania region, with even the national team’s most adventurous players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand.

That’s not to say his career since hasn’t seen brilliant highs, including scoring four times in a Pacific Games clash with Kiribati in September, representing his country against the likes of Australia (and facing up against ex-Fulham midfielder Ahmad Elrich and former Tottenham defender Spase Dilevski), and bagging a brace against Samoa just two days after his 22nd birthday in 2004.

Nathaniel cites a three-year stay in Belgium, from 1991-94, as a large influence on his eventual career in football. Flanders club Overijse Voetbal Club, currently in the Belgian fourth division, boasted the youngster’s talents in their U12 and U14 sides during his time in the country. Lepani describes the experience as one that “helped to cement my footballing upbringing” – the taste of European football from an early age has almost certainly given the current Gigira Laitepo Morobe attacker an advantage over his Papua New Guinean peers.

Helping to dispel the “uneducated and uncouth” stereotype that has plagued 21st-century footballers, Lepani has attended universities and colleges in his native PNG, Australia and America. This, combined with a high-ranking job in the Oceania branch of food processing giants Nestlé, has limited Lepani’s time for football, resulting in a “year out” from club football in 2004, and spells at lower-league clubs more convenient for someone juggling work, education and sport.

The rest of this interview contains more than enough evidence to prove his well-spoken nature and articulate views. Enjoy.

What is the highlight of your career, either at international or club level?

I have to at least mention my experience at Brescia Calcio for no other reason than what it showed me in terms of the “professional” approach to the game and all that it encompasses.  It was also a relatively humbling experience in that when we (Primavera) played the first team in a practice match, the top players would all arrive in their fancy sports cars, while us younger squad members were dropped off or caught public transport.

In saying that, though, I can’t go past the experience of being able to represent my country and lining up before the game and hearing the national anthem being played. Playing for PNG may not be the most “glamorous”,  but it’s still an absolute honor nonetheless. I’d have to say my highlights would be my first goals for PNG, at U20 level in Cook Islands at the Oceania U20s World Cup Qualifers in 2001. I had picked up a groin strain in our first training session, so had to carry that through the tournament. Despite starting against Vanuatu in our first game (a 6-0 loss), I was benched for our Cook Islands one. Coming on as a sub in the second half I played the “super sub” role and bagged two goals in my 25 minute performance. So those were my first goals in PNG colors.

 It’s always enjoyable scoring goals, and of course scoring 4 in one game against Kiribati was fulfilling and certainly worth mentioning as a highlight, but funnily enough the atmosphere in which we played that game was quite negative, and to be honest it wasn’t one of my most memorable experiences.

How did the trial at Brescia Calcio in 2001 come about? Not many PNG players make it to Europe, let alone Serie A…

Certainly not the most orthodox of ways. An Italian with close links to Brescia and other Italian Serie A and C clubs was working in PNG at the time.  Alongside a contact at Brescia Calcio (the team manager of the U16s), he set up a player agency with the objective of tapping into the Pacific Market for potential players to trial, and ultimately, play in Italy and possibly Europe as a whole.

I was fortunate that it was created at a time when I had just finished high school and had recently represented PNG at u20 level. So I had time and youth on my side, and had proven that I had the potential to succeed – which was the reason behind my selection. Admittedly as well, compared to the average Papua New Guinean, the means to support this trial was also a factor at the time, as I had to bear the costs of traveling to Bresica as well as room and board during the time there. I was one of two guys, Alex Davani being the second, who were selected to trial at Brescia from PNG.

Although it was reiterated to me that the trial could have lasted anywhere between a few days and a month, my month there showed me that I must have impressed enough for them to have kept me there during that time. While I was there 3 other trialists came and went, so during that time I was reassured that if the club had kept me there while other trialists came and went, then they must have seen something in me to keep me there.

“Lepani’s on trial with us, you say!?” Baggio’s place in football folklore lead to him being “cocooned” from the mere mortals

Did you meet former FIFA World Player of the Year Roberto Baggio or current Serie A stalwarts Andrea Pirlo and Daniele Bonera during your trial? And just how good are players at that level?

I was desperately hoping to meet Baggio. But as he was in his twilight of his career then and had already confirmed himself in the pantheon of footballing Gods, not only in Italy, but the world as well, he was unsurprisingly kept “cocooned” by what I observed. I recall that during our game against the top team, he was training by himself on the other field, under the watchful eyes of a physio (he was injured at the time, I recall) and a television crew from Japan. I do remember Bonera, although possibly due to my ignorance, did not recognise him for the player he was. Same for Pirlo, although admittedly he became the player he is during his time at Milan.

I would like to think that although I didn’t make the cut, I gave as good as other players that I trained and played with. However there was one player who I noticed to be a bit extra special, [Abderrazzak] “‘Razza” Jadid. He was with the Primavera squad at the time, but last I saw he had made the first team and was loaned out to a few other clubs [Jadid currently plays for Serie B club Grosseto, on loan from Parma].

With regards to the first team players, there was certainly a higher level of urgency and skill in their approach to their play. I was fortunate to see them in both training and during games, and their composure and reading of the game was the same. I think back now and realise that the standard I saw was probably reflective of a mid-bottom level club in Serie A (arguably the top league in the world at the time). So it still astounds me to think that if that was the standard there, imagine what it would have been at AC Milan, Roma or Inter?

What are your strengths as a player, and which famous attacker would you compare yourself to in terms of playing style?

Despite always being on the “slight” side in terms of body build, I think it’s contributed to my strengths as a player. My agility, balance, speed and ability to read the game are certainly up there as strengths. Playing in both Australia and the US, where the physical aspects of the game are more apparent, I have always had to ensure I made my mark on the game through other ways. And I think in that sense I can appreciate and admire how players like Xavi and Iniesta have been able to excel.  In terms of playing style and a player I most resemble, I’d have to say Pedro Rodriguez at Barcelona. I may not be as quick as I was, but I definitely see a bit of how I played, in him, whenever I watch Barca play.

Returning to matters closer to home, how far has football in Papua New Guinea come in recent years?

I think the introduction of the National Soccer League [in 2006] has certainly helped to create a nationalised league that challenges all clubs/franchises to operate in a semi-professional manner and strive to lift their standards, both on and off the field. I definitely think that the success of Hekari [winners of every NSL title since 2006, and OFC Champions League winners in 2010] has shown the rest of PNG that it is possible to achieve success at a domestic level and carry that on to a regional level too, and challenge the status quo. So in that sense, football has grown in leaps and bounds in the last few years. There can certainly be many more improvements in a domestic sense, but I think there has been enough of a foundation created that it is really up to us as players and future administrators and club management to continue to lift that standard.

What division in England would you compare the PNG National Soccer League to in terms of standard?

To be honest, apart from the Premier League and the understanding that there’s the “second” division below that, and so forth, I am not familiar at all with the divisions in England to make enough of an informed comparison. I would say that purely skill-wise, we would probably be comparable to the 3rd or 4th tier of the League [League One/League Two]. However in overall approach to the game (changing rooms, pre/post-game “rituals”, physios, training equipment, etc) I would say we are still near “Sunday League” level, unfortunately. It’s frustrating to say, but apart from Hekari, there is a huge gap in the approach to the game that most teams in the NSL have. The introduction of player payments/wages was supposed to bring the level up to “Semi-Professional”, however in my opinion it’s still lacking.

Lepani emulates his closest comparison in playing style, Barcelona forward Pedro, against Tahiti last year

What are the differences between top-flight football in PNG and in Europe? How big is local interest in the game?

PNG is the one country in the world that likes to boast that its national sport is Rugby League. This is certainly the case for support at a grassroots level.  Having said that, soccer has always had its following from different corners of the country. So when it comes to games and certain teams playing, there will always be followers of the game. Again, Hekari has certainly raised the profile of the game in recent years, and alongside the introduction of the NSL, coverage has become more national and therefore players more identifiable. Coverage on the national TV channel also assists in this. I still wouldn’t say it’s at the same level as rugby league players in the country, but still recognisable enough in certain crowds.

Port Moresby has always had 2 to 3 teams in the NSL at any given season, and due to the lack of suitable playing venues, most of those home games are held at the same field. So game days are often double headers. Because of that, crowd numbers are usually respectable (for PNG football standards) – up to 1,000. However for bigger games (O-League, Internationals), the crowds can swell to about 5,000 – 7,000. Lae, which has always been a stronghold for football players and supporters in the country also turns out in numbers for NSL games in Lae at the stadium there.

How did living in Belgium at a young age aid your football development, and how did the move come about? Belgium must be very different to PNG…

I was fortunate to have lived in Belgium for three years (’91-’94) when I was growing up, which helped to cement my footballing “upbringing”.  I didn’t become a teenager until I returned to PNG, but it still had a bit of a bearing on my “formative” years as a footballer. As I mentioned earlier, I think the “holistic” approach to the game really showed me what it’s like to play football in a setup that accepted that football is not only about what happens on the field during the game day.

I was fortunate enough to have lived in and experienced several cultures and countries growing up, due to my Dad’s work commitments. Belgium was no different. Our move there was due to Dad being posted there for work. Belgium  is definitely a huge change from PNG. Although I did live in Hawaii prior to Belgium, so that change in itself was also a major one.

Do you support any English or European clubs as a result of your travels abroad?

Simply put, FC Barcelona. I’ve actually been a fan ever since we lived in Belgium, and not just a recent convert like I’m sure millions of fans have been due to their recent incredible success. Their “original” dream team was just starting to gel and even at my age I recognised their brilliance. I was definitely fortunate to be living in Belgium at the time, so had access to TV and media coverage of them. So had I been in PNG I doubt I would have known of them, let alone most of the other European teams. Of course nowadays it’s easy to be drawn to support various teams due to their team make up (I enjoy the style of play of numerous players plying their trade in several top European teams), however I’m a stalwart fan of the Blaugrana. “Mes que un club”!

In England I do follow Arsenal (my brother’s team [Nathaniel’s brother Andrew has also represented PNG at international level]). An Italian close friend and teamate at Menlo, Chris Antinnuci convinced me of AS Roma’s merits. And I’ve been a fan of Totti ever since. In hindsight I was also unlucky to have missed Guardiola during his time at Brescia as well.

 How disappointed were you not to make the PNG 2012 Nations Cup squad? It must have been a bittersweet feeling to see that your brother Andrew was included, but you weren’t.

Extremely. I won’t go into details, but I did have a lengthy talk with the gaffer [former Australia boss Frank Farina] and was given a reason – I had an untimely accident which left a gash across my right knee requiring 7 stitches and one week out from training camp – for my ommission. I can’t say I blame him for that decision, considering that I agree that only the fittest and experienced of players should be selected. But I still feel that had I been given the opportunity to prove my fitness and see out the healing of my knee, that my experience and presence in the squad of 23 (regardless of whether I would have been a starter or not) would still have been beneficial and warranted. My brother has also struggled with juggling work commitments with national team duties, so in fact I’m extremely happy for him that he’s made it.

Nathaniel (bottom row, second-from-left) was overjoyed to play for Overijse while in Belgium

How much does it mean to represent your country against some of the best footballers in Oceania, and who is the best player you’ve ever faced?

For sure it means a lot. There’s so much passion and potential in Oceania that although we cannot be compared to the heights of Europe or South America or even Asia, there are still some very skillful players that I believe given the opportunity to play in established leagues in Europe would excel (although I’m not sure about the weather!).

I was fortunate enough to have played against the Australian U20s and U23s squads. And in both squads Nick Carle was a member. He may not have fulfilled his potential in Europe, but he’s one of the most skillful players I’ve been up against. I still remember our game against them at U20s level (they ran out winners 6-0). It was near cyclonic conditions – to be honest it was probably fortunate for us that the conditions were so horrendous, or else they really would have ripped us apart. But during the game that was literally played in puddles,  Nick would always be able to caress the ball and flick it up slightly to get it out of the water and just knock it patiently to his team mates. He helped to set Scott McDonald (another quality player) for a hat trick that game, if I remember correctly. But he was certainly the most skillful I had come up against.

 Finally, who do you tip to win this year’s Nations Cup? New Zealand will surely start as favourites, but the Solomon Islands are on home soil, and PNG have been labelled the “dark horses” of the competition…

I’ve just watched PNG fall to Solomons 0-1, so there goes my instinctual answer of PNG! And in the earlier game by all accounts the Kiwis [New Zealand] struggled in their 1-0 win over Fiji. On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.

I still think they’ll go all the way to win it, but not without some strong challenges along the way. The Solomon Islands are on home soil, but if their first game is anything to go by, they’ll have to step up to go all the way. With the crowd behind them, maybe that’s the extra gear that they’ll need. Fiji should be able to bounce back from their loss and challenge as well. I see the winner of Fiji and Solomons as going through as the second placed team in the group. I’m sorry to say but after the 1-0 loss to Solomons and next game against New Zealand, PNG really are up against it to progress. Crazier things have happened, but we certainly are up against it.

Having said all that, I’ve been impressed with the Francophone teams, particularly New Caledonia – they play a particular style of football that stands them apart from the other Pacific teams. After several years of underachieving, I think Tahiti are also getting back to their best.

All in all, I think it’ll be an exciting few weeks of football. And I think even if New Zealand win, I think the performance of the teams will show that the gap is closing between New Zealand and the other Pacific nations.

Thanks for your time.

No problem at all.

Read more about Nathaniel’s club and international exploits here.

Photos: Baggio – greenobles.com; Lepani – Andrew Molen/Nathaniel Lepani; Overijse team – Tim Beeckmans.


At first glance, Papua New Guinea forward Nathaniel Lepani’s career may not appear to be particularly unique. Since beginning his footballing journey in 2001 with Cosmos Port Moresby, Lepani has flitted between his homeland and the upper echelons of Australia’s Brisbane Premier League, also enjoying a spell at USA college side Menlo Oaks in 2002-03.

However, what very few realise is that Lepani almost secured a contract with Italian club Brescia Calcio, then enjoying their best-ever campaign in Serie A by finishing 7th and boasting players such as Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo. Lepani trialled, unsuccessfully, for the club’s primavera youth squad in May 2001, a time the man himself describes “the year where I pursued my professional dream.”

Had he succeeded, Nathaniel would have gone down in history as Papua New Guinea’s most successful export. Few footballers from the country stray from the Oceania region, with even the national team’s most adventurous players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand.

That’s not to say his career since hasn’t seen brilliant highs, including scoring four times in a Pacific Games clash with Kiribati in September, representing his country against the likes of Australia (and facing up against ex-Fulham midfielder Ahmad Elrich and former Tottenham defender Spase Dilevski), and bagging a brace against Samoa just two days after his 22nd birthday in 2004.

Nathaniel cites a three-year stay in Belgium, from 1991-94, as a large influence on his eventual career in football. Flanders club Overijse Voetbal Club, currently in the Belgian fourth division, boasted the youngster’s talents in their U12 and U14 sides during his time in the country. Lepani describes the experience as one that “helped to cement my footballing upbringing” – the taste of European football from an early age has almost certainly given the current Gigira Laitepo Morobe attacker an advantage over his Papua New Guinean peers.

Helping to eliminate the “uneducated and uncouth” stereotype that has plagued 21st-century footballers, Lepani has attended universities and colleges in his native PNG, Australia and America. This, combined with a high-ranking job in the Oceania branch of food processing giants Nestlé, has limited Lepani’s time for football, resulting in a “year out” from club football in 2004, and spells at lower-league clubs more convenient for someone juggling work, education and sport.

The rest of this interview contains more than enough evidence to prove his well-spoken nature and articulate views. Enjoy.

What is the highlight of your career, either at international or club level?

I have to at least mention my experience at Brescia Calcio for no other reason than what it showed me in terms of the “professional” approach to the game and all that it encompasses. From your diet to training and a typical schedule; trainings each day, on different pitch types – gravel, “sweat box” (essentially a 10m x 20m box enclosed by walls to focus on the tight space/closed play factor of the game), full pitch – game against the top side, etc. It was also a relatively humbling experience in that during the session (once a month) where we (Primavera) played the top side in a practice match, the top team players would all arrive in their fancy sports cars, while us younger squad members were dropped off or caught public transport.

In saying that, though, I can’t go past the experience of being able to represent my country and lining up before the game and hearing the national anthem being played. Playing for PNG (a country that most people probably can’t find on a map, let alone know about for its national football team) may not be the most “glamorous”, especially when compared to the previous “powerhouse” of Oceania football – Australia (before they moved to the AFC) or currently New Zealand, but it’s still an absolute honor nonetheless. So to reiterate on that point, I’d have to say my highlights (I’ll take the liberty to mention a few!) would be my first goals (I got a brace in that game) wearing a PNG jumper, at U20 level in Cook Islands at the Oceania U20s World Cup Qualifers in 2001. I had picked up a groin strain in our first training session (2 hours after we arrived in the country after a 9 hour journey via New Zealand! – just an indicator as to how our management “lacked” preparatory understanding), so had to carry that through the tournament. Despite starting against Vanuatu in our first game (a 6-0 loss), I was benched for our Cook Islands one. Coming on as a sub in the second half I played the “super sub” role and bagged two goals in my 25 minute performance. So those were my first goals in PNG colors.

 It’s always enjoyable scoring goals, and of course scoring 4 in one game against Kiribati was fulfilling and certainly worth mentioning as a highlight, but funnily enough the atmosphere in which we played that game was quite negative, and to be honest it wasn’t one of my most memorable experiences. We knew we needed a big scoreline against Kiribati to put us in a good position going into our game against Fiji. But the manner in which we were yelling at one another, forcing the play, heated correspondence by the bench/coaching staff while on the field…it definitely was not reflective of a game in which 18 goals were scored. Not to mention the somewhat humbling aspect of playing against guys who literally were just fisherman back in their villages at home. But such is the beauty of football, I guess.

“Lepani’s on trial with us, you say?!” – Baggio’s place in football folklore resulted in him being “cocooned” from the mere mortals

How did the trial at Brescia Calcio in 2001 come about? Not many PNG players make it to Europe, let alone Serie A…

Certainly not the most orthodox of ways. An Italian with close links to Brescia and other Italian Serie A and C clubs was working in PNG at the time.  Alongside a contact at Brescia Calcio (the team manager of the U16s), he set up a player agency with the objective of tapping into the Pacific Market for potential players to trial, and ultimately, play in Italy and possibly Europe as a whole.

I was fortunate that it was created at a time when I had just finished high school and had recently represented PNG at u20 level. So I had time and youth on my side, and had proven that I had the potential to succeed – which was the reason behind my selection. Admittedly as well, compared to the average Papua New Guinean, the means to support this trial was also a factor at the time, as I had to bear the costs of traveling to Bresica as well as room and board during the time there. I was one of two guys, Alex Davani being the second, who were selected to trial at Brescia from PNG. We were supposed to both travel, however due to Visa issues for Alex, I actually ended up trialing several months before him. He was also a few years younger, so trialed for one of the youth teams at Brescia, and not the Primavera, which I had trialed with.

Although it was reiterated to me that the trial could have lasted anywhere between a few days and a month, my month their showed me that I must have impressed enough for them to have kept me there during that time. While I was there 3 other trailists came and went. There was another Italian who came from AS Roma, but ended up staying for 2 training sessions before leaving. A Brazilian and Trinidad and Tobagan also joined for a week from a club in Trinidad and Tobago. So during that time I was reassured that if the club had kept me there while other trailists came and went, then they must have seen something in me to keep me there.

Did you meet former FIFA World Player of the Year Roberto Baggio or current Serie A stalwarts Andrea Pirlo and Daniele Bonera during your trial? And just how good are players at that level?

I was desperately hoping to meet Baggio. But as he was in his twilight of his career then and had already confirmed himself in the pantheon of footballing Gods, not only in Italy, but the world as well, he was unsurprisingly kept “cocooned” by what I observed. I recall that during our game against the top team, he was training by himself on the other field, under the watchful eyes of a physio (he was injured at the time, I recall) and a television crew from Japan. I do remember Bonera, although possibly due to my ignorance, did not recognise him for the player he was. Same for Pirlo, although admiteddly he became the player he is during his time at Milan.

I would like to think that although I didn’t make the cut, I gave as good as other players that I trained and played with. However there was one player who I noticed to be a bit extra special, [Abderrazzak] “‘Razza” Jadid. He was with the Primavera squad at the time, but last I saw he had made the first team and was loaned out to a few other clubs [Jadid currently plays for Serie B club Grosseto, on loan from Parma].

With regards to the first team players, there was certainly a higher level of urgency and skill in their approach to their play. I was fortunate to see them in both training and during games, and their composure and reading of the game was the same. I think back now and realise that the standard I saw was probably reflective of a mid-bottom level club in Serie A (arguably the top league in the world at the time). So it still astounds me to think that if that was the standard there, imagine what it would have been at AC Milan or Roma or Inter?

What are your strengths as a player, and which famous attacker would you compare yourself to in terms of playing style?

Despite always being on the “slight” side in terms of body build, I think it’s contributed to my strengths as a player. My agility, balance, speed and ability to read the game are certainly up there as strengths. Playing in both Australia and the US, where the physical aspects of the game are more apparent, I have always had to excerpt myself and ensure I made my mark on the game through other ways. And I think in that sense I can appreciate and admire how players like Xavi and Iniesta have been able to excel. Of course playing “the Barcelona Way” has a big influence, but that’s off topic a bit. In terms of playing style and a player I most resemble, I’d have to say Pedro Rodriguez at Barcelona. I may not be as quick as I was, but I definitely see a bit of how I played, in him, whenever I watch Barca play.

Returning to matters closer to home, how far has football in Papua New Guinea come in recent years?

I think the introduction of the National Soccer League [in 2006] has certainly helped to create a nationalised league that challenges all clubs/franchises to operate in a semi-professional manner and strive to lift their standards, both on and off the field. I definitely think that the success of Hekari [winners of every NSL title since 2006, and OFC Champions League winners in 2010] has shown the rest of PNG that it is possible to achieve success at a domestic level and carry that on to a regional level too, and challenge the status quo. So in that sense, football has grown in leaps and bounds in the last few years. There can certainly be many more improvements done in a domestic sense, but I think there has been enough of a foundation created that it is really up to us as players and future (potentially) administrators and club management to continue to lift that standard.

Emulating play-a-like Barcelona forward Pedro in a clash with Tahiti during the 2011 Pacific Games

What division in England would you compare the PNG National Soccer League to in terms of standard?

To be honest, apart from the Premier League and the understanding that there’s the “second” division below that, and so forth, I am not familiar at all with the divisions in England to make enough of an informed comparison. I would say that purely skill-wise, we would probably be comparable to the 3rd or 4th tier of the League [League One/League Two]. However in overall approach to the game (changerooms, pre/post-game “rituals”, physios, training equipment, etc) I would say we are still near “Sunday League” level, unfortunately. It’s frustrating to say, but apart from Hekari, there is a huge gap in the approach to the game that most teams in the NSL have. The introduction of player payments/wages was supposed to bring the level up to “Semi-Professional”, however in my opinion it’s still lacking. There is player discipline and approach, to name a few, that all contribute to the standard of the NSL at the moment.

What are the differences between top-flight football in PNG and in Europe? How big is local interest in the game?

PNG is the one country in the world that likes to boast that its national sport is Rugby League. This is certainly the case for support at a grassroots level. This is probably attributed to the historical ties between Australia and PNG, as well as the proximity to Australia and the coverage of Rugby League in PNG. Having said that, soccer has always had its following from different corners of the country. So when it comes to games and certain teams playing, there will always be followers of the game. Again, Hekari has certainly raised the profile of the game in recent years, and alongside the introduction of the NSL, coverage has become more national and therefore players more identifiable. Coverage on the national tv channel also assists in this. I still wouldn’t say it’s not of the same level as rugby league players in the country, but still recognisable enough in certain crowds.

Port Moresby has always had 2 to 3 teams in the NSL at any given season, and due to the lack of suitable playing venues, most of those home games are held at the same field. So game days are oftentimes double headers. Because of that, crowd numbers are usually respectable (for PNG football standards) – up to 1,000. However for bigger games (O-League, Internationals), the crowds can swell to about 5,000 – 7,000. Lae, which has always been a stronghold for football players and supporters in the country also turns out in numbers for NSL games in Lae at the stadium there.

How did living in Belgium at a young age aid your football development, and how did the move come about? Belgium must be very different to PNG…

I was fortunate to have lived in Belgium for three years (’91-’94) when I was growing up, which helped to cement my footballing “upbringing”.  I didn’t become a teenager until I returned to PNG, but it still had a bit of a bearing on my “formative” years as a footballer. As I mentioned earlier, I think the “holistic” approach to the game really showed me what it’s like to play football in a setup that accepted that football is not only about what happens on the field during the game day. That is many ways it is a ritual in itself – preparing for the game in your own time, arriving at the field, meeting your coach and team mates, going to the change rooms, pre-game talk, etc, etc.

I was fortunate enough to have lived in and experienced several cultures and countries growing up, due to my Dad’s work commitments. Belgium was no different. Our move there was due to Dad being posted there for work. Belgium (and Europe) is definitely a huge change from PNG. Although I did live in Hawaii prior to Belgium, so that change in itself was also a major one.

Nathaniel (front row, second-from-left) was overjoyed to be playing for Overijse during his stay in Belgium

Do you support any English or European clubs as a result of your travels abroad?

Simply put, FC Barcelona. I’ve actually been a fan ever since we lived in Belgium, and not just a recent convert like I’m sure millions of fans have been due to their recent incredible success. Their “original” dream team was just starting to gel and even at my age I recognised their brilliance. I was definitely fortunate to be living in Belgium at the time, so had access to TV and media coverage of them. So had I been in PNG I doubt I would have known of them, let alone most of the other European teams. Of course nowadays it’s easy to be drawn to support various teams due to their team make up (I enjoy the style of play of numerous players plying their trade in several top European teams), however I’m a stalwart fan of the Blaugrana. “Mes que un club”!

In England I do follow Arsenal (my brother’s team [Nathaniel’s brother Andrew has also represented PNG at international level]). An Italian close friend and teamate at Menlo, Chris Antinnuci convinced me of AS Roma’s merits. And I’ve been a fan of Totti ever since. In hindsight I was also unlucky to have missed Guardiola during his time at Brescia as well.

 How disappointed were you not to make the PNG 2012 Nations Cup squad? It must have been a bittersweet feeling to see that your brother Andrew was included, but you weren’t.

Extremely. I won’t go into details, but I did have a lengthy talk with the gaffer [former Australia boss Frank Farina] and was given a reason – I had an untimely accident which left a gash across my right knee requiring 7 stitches one week out from training camp – for my ommission. I can’t say I blame him for that decision, considering that I agree that only the fittest and experienced of players should be selected. But I still feel that had I been given the opportunity to prove my fitness and see out the healing of my knee, that my experience and presence in the squad of 23 (regardless of whether I would have been a starter or not) would still have been beneficial and warranted. My brother has also struggled with juggling work commitments with national team duties, so in fact I’m extremely happy for him that he’s made it.

How much does it mean to represent your country against some of the best footballers in Oceania, and who is the best player you’ve ever faced?

For sure it means a lot. There’s so much passion and potential in Oceania that although we cannot be compared to the heights of Europe or South America or even Asia, there are still some very skillful players that I believe given the opportunity to play in established leagues in Europe would excel (although I’m not sure about the weather!).

Although they are no longer in Oceania, I was fortunate enough to have played against the Australian U20s and U23s squads. And in both squads Nick Carle was a member. He may not have fulfilled his potential in Europe (I think stints with Troye in France and then with Crystal Palace), but he’s one of the most skillful players I’ve been up against. I still remember our game against them at u20s level (they ran out winners 6-0). It was near cyclonic conditions, with a cyclone being a few hundred kilometers offshore. The game had already been postponed for a day and the venue changed, so OFC [Oceania Football Confederation; the region’s equivalent to UEFA] could not afford to delay it again. To be honest it was probably fortunate for us that the conditions were so horrendous, or else they really would have ripped us apart. But during the game that was literally played in puddles, I still remember how despite the conditions, Nick would always be able to caress the ball and flick it up slightly to get it out of the water and just knock it patiently to his team mates. He helped to set Scott McDonald (another quality player) for a hat trick that game, if I remember correctly. But he was certainly the most skillful I had come up against.

 Finally, who do you tip to win this year’s Nations Cup? New Zealand will surely start as favourites, but the Solomon Islands are on home soil, and PNG have been labelled the “dark horses” of the competition…

I’ve just watched PNG fall to Solomons 0-1, so there goes my instinctual answer of PNG! And in the earlier game by all accounts the Kiwis [New Zealand] struggled in their 1-0 win over Fiji. On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.

I still think they’ll go all the way to win it, but not without some strong challenges along the way. The Bonitos [Solomon Islands] are on home soil, but if their first game is anything to go by, they’ll have to step up to go all the way. With the crowd behind them, maybe that’s the extra gear that they’ll need. Fiji should be able to bounce back from their loss and challenge as well. I see the winner of Fiji and Solomons as going through as the second placed team in the group. I’m sorry to say but after the 1-0 loss to Solomons and next game against New Zealand, PNG really are up against it to progress. Crazier things have happened, but we certainly are up against it.

Having said all that, I’ve been impressed with the Francophone teams, particularly New Caledonia. Most certainly a reflection of their French influence, they definitely play a particular style of football that stands them apart from the other Pacific teams. After several years of underachieving, I think Tahiti are also getting back to their best.

All in all, I think it’ll be an exciting few weeks of football. And I think even if New Zealand win, I think the performance of the teams will show that the gap is closing between New Zealand and the other Pacific nations.

Thanks for your time.

No problem at all.

Read more about Nathaniel’s club and international exploits here.

Photos: Baggio – greenobles.com; Lepani – Andrew Molen/Nathaniel Lepani; Overijse – Tim Beeckmans.


After experiencing the delight of their first ever official win in November 2011, American Samoa must have entered the 2012 London Olympic qualifiers with high hopes and increased confidence. After a run of 30 consecutive defeats, the minnows had beaten Tonga and matched the Cook Islands in a 1-1 draw. The players could have been forgiven for thinking that their days of suffering the humiliation of double-figure thrashings and enduring four-year goal droughts were over.

Unfortunately not. Although American Samoa’s under-23 team, which would compete in the qualifiers, has enjoyed less success and practice than the senior side, American Samoans would still have been confident that progress would continue. Drawn in a group containing regional heavyweights Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, American Samoa had the chance to prove their development into a competitive nation in the Oceania confederation.

This optimism would have been lessened, but not eradicated, by the half-time score-line in the team’s opening game against Vanuatu. 4-0 down after just 23 minutes, American Samoa recovered to match their stronger opponents for the remainder of the half. Samoans would not have been shocked to find their team trailing heavily but would have hoped for a goalless second half that would have underlined the side’s progress.

Even the attentions of two defenders can’t prevent Vanuatu’s Sailas Namatak from claiming a hat-trick

American Samoa almost did just that – had the match only lasted 80 minutes rather than 90, 4-0 would have been the respectable result. However, the side tired and their resistance was emphatically ended with 4 goals in the last nine minutes. The result was disappointing but not unexpected. The Blues now needed to pick themselves up and fast – the next game, against Fiji, was scheduled in just two days time.

The Fiji match bore some similarities to their encounter with Vanuatu. Again, American Samoa conceded early on, but this time they held out until half-time for an incredible 1-0 score-line. A narrow defeat to arguably Oceania’s best country after New Zealand would have ranked among American Samoa’s best achievements on the world stage, but again, it was not to be. Six second-half Fiji goals, interrupted only by an Ailoa Tualaulelei consolation to bring it back to 5-1, again left the Samoans demoralized and defeated. Make no doubt about it, this Fiji team was talented – they would go on to reach the final, only losing 1-0 to clear favourites New Zealand.

So it was with low expectation and confidence that the Samoan players would have entered their final fixture, against the Solomon Islands on 21 March. However, they would probably have expected a closer game than their last two matches – Solomon Islands had also lost both of their games, albeit by only one or two goals as opposed to American Samoa’s six or eight. Both teams were already eliminated and optimistic Samoans may have hoped to encounter an unmotivated, low-on-belief Solomon team that was there for the taking.

American Samoa captain Jr Amisone tries in vain to stop New Zealand-based Jerry Donga

What followed was American Samoa’s worst result since August 2007. A return to the dark days of double-figure hammerings loomed large on the horizon as the minnows were blown away by a surprisingly determined Solomon team. Five minutes in, and one goal to the good thanks to Shalom Luani’s strike, Samoans were dreaming of what would have been the best result in their history. Eighty-five minutes later, they fully appreciated the reasoning behind their opponent’s nickname, the Blue Brazil. In the space of 77 minutes, American Samoan goalkeeper Satila Tupua saw 16 shots fly past him into the net as the Solomons equalised, took the lead, and then scored 14 more for measure.

Five days after the tournament began, American Samoa were eliminated and embarrassed. The progress shown in November had stagnated here and it was clear that the success enjoyed at senior level was not to be replicated in the country’s youth sides.

However, American Samoa can take some consolation from their five days of disaster. Their first-half performances against all three sides, as well as the fact that two goals were scored, showed that future victories are possible. They may have taken one step forward and two steps back, but don’t be surprised to hear another shock wave from Samoa when the side next takes to the field.


Midfielder Jasmine Pereira scored four times as New Zealand helped themselves to a more than comfortable 13-1 victory over strugglers New Caledonia at the Women’s U-17 Championship in Auckland.

As predicted here, the Young Football Ferns had no problem reaching double figures against a demoralized New Caledonia side who understandably began to give up hope with each New Zealand strike. As well as Pereira’s four-goal haul, forward Martine Puketapu bagged a hat-trick,  with Emma Rolston also netting a brace.

New Caledonia goalkeeper Deborah Selefen anticipates Martine Puketapu's shot

The game couldn’t have begun much better for New Zealand: within a minute of kick-off, Emma Rolston’s inch-perfect through ball found Pereira, who finished from an acute angle. However, the expected avalanche of goals was interrupted by Noe Valefakaaga’s superb equaliser on eighteen minutes. The New Caledonia midfielder ran onto a through ball and was presented with a one-on-one opportunity thanks to Meikayla Moore’s untimely slip before side-footing a measured finish past the otherwise under-worked Lily Alfeld. New Caledonia celebrated wildly and may have begun to dream of a famous, unlikely result.

Unfortunately for Les Cagous, it was not to be. The New Caledonians enjoyed ten minutes of blissful stalemate before New Zealand regained the lead through Emma Rolston. From then on, the Young Football Ferns never looked likely to be caught, scoring twice more before half-time through goals from Pereira and Puketapu.

Nevertheless, New Zealand’s English coach Paul Temple must have demanded improvement at half-time – New Caledonia had given his side an almighty scare by drawing level and the need for more goals was clearly passed on to the players.

Just two minutes into the second half it was 5-1, and although New Caledonia reached the hour-mark with the score at a respectable 6-1, they fell apart in the final half-hour. Daisy Cleverly made it 7 with twenty minutes to play, before an incredible six goals in the last fifteen minutes added significant gloss to the scoreline. Pereira’s fourth of the game, a side-foot volley from Laura Merrin’s cross, was one of the best goals of the day, but Briar Palmer’s solo effort for the game’s final goal was even better – waltzing past three opposition defenders, Palmer planted the ball past beleaguered goalkeeper Deborah Selefen to end the game in style.

New Caledonia will have to pick themselves up for their final game, a clash with the Cook Islands on Friday. The Islands will be equally determined to finally get some points on the board, having lost both of their previous games.

Elsewhere, the Cook Islands ran Papua New Guinea close in a 3-2 loss, but the Reds probably deserved to win an entertaining encounter. Papua New Guinea opened the scoring on 21 minutes through Ramona Lorenz. Rumona Morris’ cross caused confusion as it evaded Cook Islands goalkeeper Moeroa Nootai, and Lorenz capitalized as defender Edna Teio failed to clear.

Papua New Guinea's Alexier Stephen feels the force of a fierce challenge

Lorenz doubled her team’s advantage with a close-range volley seven minutes later, but the Cook Islands replied ten minutes before half-time through Tepaeru Toka’s looping header. However, an equalizer looked unlikely and Papua New Guinea restored the two-goal gap on 52 minutes when Nootai failed to hold Georgina Kaitas’ shot. Although Tepaeru Toka gave her team hope with a well-taken goal with twenty minutes left, it was Papua New Guinea who looked more like scoring, with Lorenz firing an effort against the crossbar.

Having used all three substitutes, Thalitha Irakau’s injury ten minutes from the end meant that Papua New Guinea were a woman down for the closing moments, but they held out for a valuable win. Cook Islands coach Angela Valamaka said “Obviously we’re really disappointed – the girls played well, but the conditions and the physicality of the Papua New Guinea team was a bit too much for them today.”

Papua New Guinea’s tie with New Zealand on Friday will decide who represents Oceania at the U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan later this year, but the Reds will enter as huge underdogs. New Zealand’s huge win over New Caledonia will add even more confidence to an already assured side, and Papua New Guinea will need to be more clinical to have any chance of upsetting the odds.

Watch highlights of Papua New Guinea’s win over Cook Islands here: