Tag Archive: Soccer

Recent events suggest that the Swiss Super League, the country’s highest division, is struggling to live up to its name. The league’s 2011-12 season has been plagued by financial crises as well as protests from both fans and clubs.

The biggest disaster, though, has been the bankruptcy of Neuchâtel Xamax, two-time Super League winners. As a result of the club’s consistent financial difficulties, the Swiss Football Association has expelled Xamax from the Super League mid-season, and demoted it to the 2. Liga – the Swiss fourth tier – for the 2012-13 season.

In the first half of the season, Xamax had amassed 26 points in 18 games and were in a comfortable fourth place in the ten-team league. However, Xamax had their license revoked on 18 January 2012 after failing to provide the necessary financial documents and guarantees. Just eight days later the club officially announced their bankruptcy amid claims from ESPN that Neuchâtel were “suspected of falsifying a bank document produced as a financial guarantee last year” – the apparently forged document was said to contain basic spelling and grammar mistakes as the club desparately tried to cover up their problems.

Bungling Bulat has reason to worry after being arrested for "financial mismanagement"

Xamax’s chairman, Russian businessman Bulat Chagaev, must be cursing his decision to take over the club in May. What followed has been the most turbulent 12 months in the club’s history, and Chagaev’s public humiliation doesn’t end there – shortly after Xamax’s bankruptcy was announced, he was arrested for “financial mismanagement” and is suspected to be responsible for a large part of the club’s debts of at least $8.7 million. Guilty or not, the Russian was clearly not cut out for football – he had already sacked four coaches in just nine months.

While Chagaev attempts to clear his name and avoid prosecution, the rest of the club has battled bravely on. A poll on Xamax’s official website asks “How are you willing to help rebuild Xamax?” – unfortunately for the willing volunteers, 10% of supporters say they don’t want to help at all. They have seen their club lurch from one disaster to the next, and even dedicated, loyal fans will eventually decide enough is enough.

It is a sad fall from grace for the Stade de la Maladière side, whose former players include the Senegalese pair of current West Ham midfielder Papa Bouba Diop and ex-Wigan striker Henri Camara, as well as Swiss defender Stephane Henchoz, who enjoyed a six-year spell at Liverpool between 1999 and 2005.

As if Xamax’s troubles weren’t enough, the Swiss FA has also had to deal with troublesome side FC Sion. The club have ignored a FIFA-sanctioned transfer embargo to sign six players this season, and have made no attempt to hide this, fielding ineligible players in no fewer than 12 matches this season.  The Swiss FA have responded with a huge 36 point deduction, leaving Sion bottom of the table with little hope of staying up. The scale of the points deduction is best highlighted by the fact that without the 36-point penalty, Sion would be second in the table, challenging for the title.

Even fans of teams at the top of the league still have reason to be unhappy. Second-placed Luzern have been troubled by fan protest over the club’s banning of flags in its Swissporarena ground. Luzern fans responded by remaining silent during home matches, creating an eerie atmosphere that forced the club to back-track on its decision and re-allow fans to wield flags during games. This isn’t the first time Luzern supporters have made their feelings felt – after a 2010 clash with Basel was rescheduled to avoid a clash with a Roger Federer match, both sets of fans threw thousands of tennis balls on to the pitch to delay the game and make sure the events overlapped anyway.

Xamax's gates will remain closed for the unforseeable future

Although this season has been particularly turbulent for the Swiss FA, the Super League has a history of issues, especially financial ones. Lausanne-Sport were relegated to the fourth division in 2003 after going bankrupt, and like Xamax, Servette dropped out of the Super League mid-season in 2005.

Despite returning to the top flight this season, Servette’s financial worries have reappeared: December 2011 reports suggested that the club was unable to pay players’ wages, and in February 2012 Servette filed for bankruptcy once more.

The Swiss FA’s punishments may look severe, but with FIFA threatening to expel the country’s clubs from European competitions unless action was taken, the Swiss governing body had little choice. As Sion said in a club statement following their points deduction: “This decision is an intolerable attack on fairness in sport but comes as no surprise to the club which did not expect any courage on the part of the ASF in the face of FIFA”.

For a league that has slipped down the FIFA coefficient rankings in recent years, resulting in the loss of its second Champions League place, the Super League could really have done without these problems. Until something changes, Swiss clubs will continue to break the rules and enter bankruptcy with alarming regularity. It is not a sustainable situation.

Watch the infamous tennis ball protest below:

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:

Fans of League One and Two clubs could be forgiven for looking at the significant distance between their beloved team and the big-time Charlies of the Premier League and deciding their side is destined never to reach the top flight. Given the gap in finances and quality of players, it’s a reasonable assumption.

But history can provide comfort for those who continue to resolutely believe that Accrington Stanley will one day march to the Premier League title, leaving Man United City in their wake. Three successful seasons is “all” it takes for a club to reach the promised land from England’s basement professional division.

Stoke take on Valencia in this season's Europa League - a far cry from their days of battling Wrexham and Cambridge in the Third Division as recently as 2001-02

A cursory glance at the 1991-92 Division Three table would surprise many a fan, and rightly so. Current Premier League sides Fulham, Wigan Athletic, West Brom, Stoke City and Swansea were all languishing in the third tier exactly twenty years ago – in fact, Swansea only survived relegation to the fourth division that season by five points. Teams flying high in the Championship this season were also mired in  Division Three mid-table mediocrity in 1991-92 – Reading finished in twelfth place, behind the likes of Brentford and Stockport County.

For more recent examples, look no further than the 2002-03 league tables. Just eight seasons before they would win promotion to the Premier League, Swansea were still battling in England’s lower divisions and even faced relegation to the Conference in 2003, surviving by just one point at the expense of Exeter City. Swansea learned their lesson and look what they have achieved since.

Taking Exeter’s place in the Football League were current Championship side Doncaster Rovers, fresh from Conference play-off victory, while even further down the league pyramid current League Two clubs Accrington and Aldershot helped themselves to themselves to Northern Premier League and Isthmian league titles respectively.

Plymouth have swapped fixtures against the likes of Wolves for games at AFC Wimbledon and Macclesfield

Granted, this year’s League Two consists of fewer big clubs. In recent years, Plymouth Argyle and Bradford City have worked their way to the top before suffering a slide through the divisions – the opposite journey to the teams outlined above. As recently as May 2001 the people of Bradford were enjoying Premier League football, but this season the Bantams could even drop in to non-league football.

Plymouth never quite made it as high as the top-flight, but if you had told Argyle fans in 2007-08, when they finished 10th in the Championship – just six points shy of the play-offs – that they would be battling for League Two survival in five years time, you would have probably been laughed at. The club’s downfall has been astonishingly fast – they were still playing in the Championship in 2009-10. However, financial difficulties have robbed Plymouth of their chance to reach the Premier League, an opportunity that now seems a lifetime away.

So while your tiny lower-league team of small-time professionals may look more like reaching the Ryman League than the Premier League, don’t give up hope. Clubs can shoot through the leagues with impressive speed, but be warned – the fall from grace can be just as fast if you’re not careful.

Like most of its New Zealand Football Championship (NZFC) colleagues, Waitakere United was founded in 2004 to compete in the newly-introduced top division of New Zealand football. Waitakere has grown to become the most successful club in the country, winning the NZFC more times (4) than any other side and qualifying for the OFC Champions League on multiple occasions.

Waitakere's crest reflects their club colours - red and white

In 2004-05, the league’s inaugural season, Waitakere finished up as runners-up but lost the Final 3-2 to table-toppers Auckland City. However, the following season failed to match this success as Waitakere slipped to a disappointing sixth-placed finish. The club bounced back well to finish top of the league in 2006-07, but once again were defeated 3-2 by Auckland in the final. 2007-08 saw Waitakere finally win their first championship, beating Team Wellington 2-0 in the final.

This win inspired the club to further success – although the following season they were beaten in the final by Auckland for the third time, Waitakere beat Canterbury United 3-1 in the 2009-10 final to secure a second championship in three years. In 2010-11 the club extracted revenge on enemies Auckland – a close final was swung Waitakere’s way by a last-minute own goal. The score-line, 3-2, also gave Auckland a taste of their own medicine.

Waitakere celebrate their all-conquering 2010-11 NZFC season

Waitakere have enjoyed two successful OFC Champions League campaigns: their first title in 2007, having only qualified for the competition after Vanuatu’s Port Vila Sharks withdrew, United beat Fiji’s Ba FC on away goals to earn the crown of Oceania’s best club. The second title came the following year – 3-1 down to Kossa FC of the Solomon Islands after the first leg, Waitakere recovered to cruise to a 5-0 win in the second leg and win the competition on aggregate. United again reached the final in 2010, but were beaten 4-2 by Papua New Guinean champions Hekari United.

These Champions League triumphs qualified the club for the FIFA World Club Championship Play-Offs, but in both 2007 and 2008, Waitakere fell at the tournament’s first hurdle. A 3-1 loss to Iran’s Sepahan FC in 2007 was followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat to Aussie side Adelaide United in 2008.

Waitakere’s squad boasts five English players, three of them goalkeepers. Daniel Robinson, a former Derby County and Blackpool youth-teamer, and previously of Burton Albion, is joined at the club by ex-Everton trainee, Northwich Victoria and Altrincham custodian Andrew Ralph, and Basingstoke-born Matthew Upton, nicknamed “Crouchy” at former club Auckland City. The club’s two English outfield players both have a wealth of experience from years spent playing with big clubs. 40 year old player-manager Neil Emblen, also the coach of New Zealand’s under-23 team, is an ex-Millwall, Wolves and Norwich midfielder, and fellow midfielder Martin Bullock has played at a high level for Barnsley and Blackpool, winning one England U-21 cap in the process.

Roy Krishna, regarded as the best player in the league, has attracted the interest of PSV

A multi-national squad is completed by Fiji international Roy Krishna, Papua New Guinea frontman Mauri Wasi and Solomon Islander Gagame Feni, formerly of Canterbury United. Forward Krishna is one of Oceania’s brightest young stars, and attracted the interest of Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven in March 2009 as well as impressing A-League clubs Wellington Pheonix and North Queensland Fury. The New Zealand Herald has called Krishna “the best player in the league” and has claimed “it has become apparent he has outgrown the NZFC”. Only 24, Krishna has scored 14 goals  in 19 games for Fiji, including hat-tricks against Kiribati, Samoa and Tuvalu, and both goals in a 2-0 win over New Zealand in the 2008 OFC Nations Cup. He is the key to Waitakere’s success, regularly ending seasons with a record of better than a goal every other game.

The club plays its home games at the 10,000-capacity Fred Taylor Park, but the ground’s limit is rarely reached. Waitakere play to average attendances of just 400 in the league, which is lower than some Isthmian league clubs’ crowds in England’s seventh tier, but normal for the New Zealand Football Championship. Indeed, Waitakere could consider themselves lucky to have such a “large” support – poor old YoungHeart Manawatu are regularly cheered on by just 100 fans.

Thankfully, Waitakere’s Champions League games and derbies with fellow Auckland club Auckland City attract more fans. Waitakere’s Champions League tie with Fijian club Ba FC in November 2011 saw an impressive 4,000 flock to Fred Taylor Park, and gates are swelled by several hundred when Auckland City come to visit.

The Whites began the 2011-12 campaign in incredible form, recording a 3-0 victory over Hawke’s Bay United before thumping Otago United 6-0 away. However, since then, the club has slipped to third place, and although Waitakere are only two points behind second-placed Canterbury, their chances of winning the championship are slim with Auckland seven points clear at the top. Five losses in their fourteen NZFC games have cost Waitakere dear, and they will have to go through the semi-finals if they are to win their fifth championship.

This season’s OFC Champions League campaign has been more successful – Waitakere will progress to the competition’s final unless Tahiti’s AS Tefana can beat Ba FC in  the last game of the group stage. United began the group stage in imperious fashion, thrashing ten-man Tefana 10-0 and thumping Ba by four goals. However, a 3-0 loss to Tefana at Tahiti’s Stade Louis Ganivet could prove costly – it leaves Waitakere relying on other results. Should Tefana slip up, Waitakere will reach the final, coming up against Auckland City (who else?). It proves to be an interesting season for Waitakere, one that could see them further cement themselves as New Zealand’s most successful club.

A Good Friday bumper crowd of 3,934 Torquay’s third-highest home attendance of the season, helped inspire the promotion-chasing Gulls to another crucial win – but they were made to wait. Rene Howe’s 73rd minute goal was the one moment of quality required to separate the teams, but Torquay also missed several clear chances in an entertaining second half.

The players walk out to one of Plainmoor's biggest attendances of 2011-12

Some Torquay fans, in light of Accrington’s recent defensive crisis and nothing-to-play-for mid-table standing, would have been expecting the Gulls to easily dispose of their Lancashire opponents, and they would have been encouraged by Stanley’s nervy start. The Accrington players must have been intimidated by the sight of home fans outnumbering travelling Stanley supporters in the Away End, a paradox caused by an overspill of Gulls in the Popular Stand.

However, the avalanche of goals never arrived as Accrington recovered to match Torquay across the park, resulting in a competitive first-half that resulted in few clear chances as the sides cancelled each other out. In a rare moment of quality, Gulls left-back Kevin Nicholson volleyed narrowly wide from the edge of the area, and visiting goalkeeper Ian Dunbavin had to make an important catch from Rene Howe’s cross with Torquay’s Ian Morris ready to pounce. The rest of the half consisted of over-hit long balls and promising moves from both sides that always seemed to peter out at the crucial moment. It was not the most exciting of first halves.

Indeed, the biggest cheer of the half accompanied the rare sight of Torquay’s tiny 5ft 4 in winger Danny Stevens somehow managing to win a header on the half-way line. It was quite an achievement in a game where he was by some distance the smallest man on the pitch.

Thankfully, as has so often been the case at Plainmoor this season, the second half saw more goalmouth action, excitement, and, importantly, a goal. After their side’s impressive start after the break, Accrington fans could have been forgiven for thinking their team would end up grabbing the points – Gulls centre-back Mark Ellis had to make important blocks to deny both Bobby Grant and substitute Ian Craney. As the home fans began to turn on their underperforming players, it looked like being Stanley’s day.

In an unusual situation, Torquay fans take up over half the Away End

However, Accrington failed to take their chances and were almost punished immediately afterwards. Eunan O’Kane’s corner found Mark Ellis unmarked, but the defender volleyed over with the goal at his mercy. The let-off encouraged away keeper Ian Dunbavin to take as long as possible over his next few goal-kicks, resulting in the ignomony of being booked for time-wasting just over five minutes into the second half.

If Torquay fans thought that miss was bad enough (and it was bad), they were wrong. Just eight minutes later Ellis was presented with an even easier chance, but once again contrived to miss when it looked easier to score. Another Torquay corner was cleared away, and the home support were surprised to see Ellis remain on the edge of the area for a while afterwards. However, the defensive stalwart’s attacking instincts were spot on – a cross back into the box allowed Danny Stevens to wriggle free of the Accrington marking and toe-poke the ball past Dunbavin into the path of Ellis. From just eight yards out, Ellis somehow thundered the ball against the bar when a simple daisy-cutter across the floor would have sufficed – the goal was gaping.

It was the kind of chance that doesn’t come around very often, and Torquay were almost made to pay for their woeful finishing when Ian Craney outpaced the centre-back pairing of Ellis and Brian Saah and flicked a rising effort over the onrushing Bobby Olejnik. The Austrian custodian was relieved to see the ball land harmlessly on top of the goal, but it was a warning sign. Deciding that changes were needed if Torquay were to win the game, manager Martin Ling withdrew holding midfielder Damon Lathrope for the more attacking Ryan Jarvis.

It was an inspired substitution. Jarvis had been on the field just six minutes when he chased a seemingly lost cause by the corner-flag. His unexpected pressure forced Accrington centre-back Michael Liddle into a mistake, allowing Jarvis to seize possession and find targetman Rene Howe on the edge of the box. Even after evading two challenges with a mixture of luck and skill, Howe still appeared to pose little threat to Dunbavin’s goal, but the former Peterborough frontman produced a brilliant curling effort that eluded the visiting goalkeeper’s despairing grasp. It was a goal out of nothing, and Accrington were devastated to have conceded from a basic error after defending well for much of the match.

Stanley boss Paul Cook had only renewed Sunderland loanee Liddle’s temporary contract the week before, and he must have been wondering why he had bothered as the mistake began to look like the turning point in the game. It was – whereas Torquay had previously been under huge pressure to score a late winner, Howe’s goal gave them something to defend and Stanley had little time to bounce back.

Howe was withdrawn on 80 minutes to a generous reception, but Torquay continued to search for a second goal to seal the points. With just three minutes of normal time remaining, Jarvis had a golden opportunity to cement his reputation as Torquay’s super-sub. Danny Stevens ran at makeshift Accrington right-back Craig Lindfield, a player usually employed as a forward. The reluctant defender had been pressed into service after a defensive crisis at the club, but was powerless to prevent Stevens nutmegging him before combining with Eunan O’Kane on Torquay’s left flank. O’Kane’s pull-back was met by the onrushing Jarvis on the penalty spot, but a badly-placed divot was enough to send the on-loan Walsall man’s shot over the bar.

Despite the miss, the Yellow Army remained confident of another three points in the bag come full-time. The Torquay players’ relaxed nature almost proved costly, as Will Hatfield forced Olejnik into a fine save late on. It was a timely reminder that the game was not yet won, and with the aid of further fresh legs in Lathanial Rowe-Turner, Torquay held on for another vital win.

With promotion rivals Southend and Crawley both slipping up, this victory could prove to be the difference between automatic promotion and the play-offs come the end of the season. Accrington’s efforts almost saw them come away with a hard-earned point, a result that would have been admirable in the circumstances – the centre-back pairing of Peter Murphy and Liddle, a left-back by trade, are both just 22 years old, and their inexperience was not aided by forward Lindfield being forced into an unfamiliar role. As it was, the Gulls secured an incredible twelfth 1-0 win of the season – promotion form indeed.

Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Ellis, Saah, Nicholson, Stevens (Rowe-Turner 87), Mansell, Lathope (Jarvis 67), O’Kane, Morris, Howe (Atieno 80). Subs not used: Rice, MacDonald.

Accrington: Dunbavin, Lindfield, Murphy, Liddle, McIntyre, Barnett, Joyce, Hopper (Evans 67), Devitt (Hatfield 81), Grant, Amond (Craney 45). Subs not used: Nicholls, Guthrie.

Attendance: 3,934


Palau – Going Nowhere?

Who? Exactly. Palau are one of a number of tiny islands whose football teams have been out of action for over a decade. Located in the Pacific Ocean with a population of just 20,000, Palau is never going to be a football superpower, even in FIFA’s weaker confederations.

Football on the island began in March of 1987 when a Palau side competed in the Oceania Club Championship. Unsurprisingly, Palau were knocked out by Vanuatu in the competition’s first round, losing 6-2, but this should have been an important stepping stone in making Palau’s team competitive against their equally minute rivals.

However, the country’s football fanatics (all 3 of them) had to wait until July 1998 for Palau’s next match. The delay between games may have been disappointing but the result certainly wasn’t – Palau registered their first ever win with a 7-1 thumping of Pohnpei, a side that has been coached by Englishman Paul Watson in recent years. The success continued in the next match with another 7-1 victory, against another Micronesian state. Both of these wins came at the 1998 Micronesian Games held in Palau, but even home advantage wasn’t enough to help the side claim the comparatively large scalps of Guam and Northern Marianas Islands in August 1998.

Palau were thrashed 15-2 by Guam and 12-1 by Northern Marianas Islands. Considering Guam themselves were annihilated 21-0 by North Korea in 2005, Palau still had a long way to go, but the future looked bright as long as regular, competitive matches against similar opposition were set up.

Unfortunately, this never happened. That miserable 12-1 loss to Northern Marianas Islands on 2 August 1998 remains Palau’s most recent international fixture. As the 20th century drew to a close progress appeared to have stagnated and football seemed to be in decline on the island.


The "Competition Calendar" section of the Palau FA's website is comically free of dates

However, hope was offered by the formation of the Palau Soccer League in 2004. The first edition was won by Daewoo Ngatpang who defeated Mount Everest Nepal in the final. Other countries had showed that creating a national league could be a vital step in forming a competitive national side; Paul Watson formed his Pohnpeian team from the National League’s best players, and this is something that could have been copied in Palau.

Again, however, this failed to materialize. While the league continued to provide hope for the standard of football on the island, with annual tournaments starting to be set up, the most recent championship was in 2007 and the league now appears to have been disbanded. The fact that the most recent winners were Team Bangladesh suggests that foreigners were more enthusiastic than the locals, and now that Palau no longer has any evidence of football being played places huge doubt on the chances of the island ever playing an international match again.

Incredibly, 2009 saw the East Asian Football Federation announce that they had received a request from Palau to become a “quasi-member” of the association, once more providing hope for a seemingly lost cause. But without a league and having last played over a decade ago, you could be forgiven for thinking Palau’s application may not be immediately accepted. That seems to be the case – with no further developments on the request, Palau will continue to drift further and further away from their next international game until something changes.

One bright spot is the Palau Football Association’s work to give youngsters the chance to play the game. Although the PFA website invites mockery by boasting that it reaches the rather modest sum of “approximately 200 youth per year through school and after school activities” any attempt to improve matters can only be seen as positive. Woefully short of funds, the PFA relies on “a handful of parents/coaches” to keep football going. It appears that an unlikely invitation to join the EAFF is Palau’s only hope – and although youth coaching is promising, an adult league and team is needed for this to happen.

With the right structure and leadership, Palau could have been on a par with countries such as Guam and Northern Marianas Islands, but no-one has taken control of football on the island, allowing facilities and enthusiasm to gradually rot away. It could have all been so different.

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.


Hekari United remain the country's team to beat

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.

The NSL's success has increased the standard of football in Papua New Guinea

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.

American Samoa, a tiny US territory with a population of just 55,000, recently hit the headlines after winning their first FIFA-sanctioned game. This success, a 2-1 “giantkilling” of fellow minnows Tonga, ended a mammoth 30-game losing streak and brought relative fame (if only for the allocated 15 minutes) to the team and country.

The national side had only previously been acknowledged by worldwide media in 2001 after an infamous 31-0 loss to Australia. Many labelled the side as hopeless and the notion that the team’s players had never kicked a ball between them was created. However, many also failed to realise that American Samoa, already huge underdogs against Oceania’s largest side, were forced to field their youth team after passport issues with senior players. Just one of their original 20-man squad was eligible for the game  – goalkeeper Nicky Salapu – part-time international footballer, part-time Seattle supermarket worker. American Samoa were also forced to field three 15 year olds as many of their under-20 side were unavailable.

Even the name of the country's FA, Football Federation American Samoa, seems backward

Since that loss, American Samoa had seemed to be making little progress, losing routinely and heavily against the likes of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. In a country where American Football appears to be more popular, coupled with a smaller population than most of their opponents, this may not appear to be much of a surprise, but this incredible losing run earned the side a kind of cult following – well as much is as possible for a tiny island in the Pacific. People from across the world marveled at the haplessness of the team and decided to follow their seemingly hopeless plight.

The 2011 Pacific Games brought further misery for the players but further joy for the cult following that seemed to revel in American Samoa’s prolonged pain, celebrating each 10-0 loss as some kind of joke. The cult following were happy for the side to lose every game – should American Samoa somehow manage a victory, the enjoyment and humour extracted from following them would be lessened.

A narrow 4-0 loss to fellow no-hopers Tuvalu, a side coached by former Holland U-21 boss Foppe de Haan, seemed promising and bearable, and the same scoreline against the Solomon Islands was viewed as something of an achievement. A close 2-0 defeat to Guam showed considerable improvement from previous competitions but against regional heavyweights New Caledonia and Vanuatu, Iofi Lalogafuafua’s men went down 8-0, inevitably finishing bottom of their group with no points.

Their overseas “fans” rejoiced in another comically bad tournament for the Samoans, but many of the players had had their last opportunity to experience a win at international level – too old to play in future tournaments, they would be consigned to history as part of a side that became the laughing stock of international football.

What a shock then, when on 23 November 2011, the side managed the unthinkable and defeated Tonga 2-1 to scenes of jubilation and disbelief in Apia, Samoa, where the game was held. Many of the cult following probably had the opposite reaction – now they needed a new team to mock in pretend support, someone to patronise with fake encouragement.

American Samoa celebrate their first official win in November 2011

It was no coincidence that the win came soon after the appointment of former D.C. United, Chivas USA and US U-20 coach Thomas Rongen, who clearly instilled belief and tactics to the side. After the win, Rongen stated “This is going to be part of soccer history, like the 31-0 against Australia was part of history”. He recognised that the team had come the full circle in media coverage – mocked for their sheer inability to compete in 2001, they were now being praised for an improbable victory against favoured opponents.

While winning in itself seemed distinctly unlike American Samoa, the fact that the second, clinching goal was tellingly scored by Shalom Luani, a 17 year old defender-turned striker, showed that American Samoa has not changed – it has merely evolved. And good for them.