Papua New Guinea women’s soccer team looking to qualify for World Cup

The Papua New Guinea women’s national football team are ready to make their country’s dreams come true – and they just might.

Dubbed the “Football Queens of the Pacific”, they are campaigning to qualify for the World Cup and, as five-time Pacific Games gold medalists, the pressure is mounting.

The first step to achieving their goal is to win the OFC Women’s Nations Cup in Fiji, which takes place from July 13-30.

From there, the OFC Cup winner will advance to the Inter-Confederation play-off against nine other nations vying for the remaining three places at the 2023 World Cup, which will be played in Australia and New Zealand.

The Papua New Guinea squad is a mix of experience and youth, who will rely on speed and teamwork in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup.(The National Sport/ABC: Patricia Keamo)

The PNG women – led by England coach Nicola Demaine – could well have the OFC Cup within their reach with New Zealand, their biggest competitor, out of the table having automatically qualified as the host nation.

PNG were placed in Group B along with Vanuatu and Tahiti.

Demaine says it’s hard to say how their playstyles have changed, but PNG will have to perform.

“All the games will be must wins for us because our goal will be to win the group,” said Demaine.

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Speed, depth and teamwork are all part of the strategy

Demaine relies on the speed of its players to break through.

PNG also capitalize on their depth as a team made up of experienced players and rookies alike.

Under the guidance of a competent coach, this may be what they need to make history in the country and qualify.

Yvonne Gabong kicks a ball while a defender puts pressure on her.
PNG captain Yvonne Gabong in action for her National Women’s Football League club Port Moresby Strikers FC.(The National Sport/ABC: Patricia Keamo)

Demaine says the team is determined to work together to achieve their ultimate goal.

“Right now we are focusing on team cohesion, which [has] has proven to be a factor in the team’s success in the past,” Demaine said.

“At the end of the day, there will be an element of luck there. It’s a tough goal to achieve.

“But the path is there… so if we can win the Nations Cup, then we prepare as best we can for the second leg.

Yvonne Gabong of the PNG women's national soccer team runs next to a soccer ball in training.
Kesai Kotome and his team are on a mission to make PNG proud and qualify for the World Cup.(The National Sport/ABC: Patricia Keamo)

The team’s current training programs include gym and field sessions, psychology sessions and the expertise of a nutritionist.

Prepare when resources are scarce

After the 2019 Pacific Games, there was little to no first domestic competition for women in PNG and no international matches until the team’s recent appearance in the Tri-Nations series in April against hosts Singapore. and Seychelles, where PNG won both matches.

Over the years, the PNG Football Association has primarily focused on the men’s national team and its premier league, as opposed to the women’s.

The PNG women's national football team play a friendly match against the PNG men's team.
In the past two years, there has been no first national competition for women, including Asaiso Gossie, in PNG.(The National Sport/ABC: Patricia Keamo)

However, it is the PNG women who have thrived and succeeded in the Pacific, with an improved FIFA ranking (49th) while the PNG men are ranked 162.

“It would be just amazing to see them achieve this sort of thing. It’s different to other countries in the way they try to qualify. [for the World Cup]“, Demaine said.

A member of the PNG women's national football team kicks a ball during a men's friendly match.
Olivia Upaupa and the PNG women have a FIFA rating of 49.(The National Sport/ABC: Patricia Keamo)

The women’s team are currently playing friendlies with some local men’s under-18 teams, but hope to have a few international friendlies in Asia or Australia before the OFC Cup.

“We hope to travel and play in the FIFA windows from June 20-28,” Demaine said.

“My plan has always been to play an international match in all FIFA windows, but that is subject to approval and the budget available to the team.”

Getting help from a former great

Meanwhile, former national captain Deslyn Siniu manages the welfare of the team and bolsters their preparations with her experience.

Deslyn Siniu poses for a portrait.
The team relied on the experience of former PNG captain Deslyn Siniu in preparation.(FIFA/Getty Images: Ian Walton)

“Ideally having more friendlies similar to the Tri-Nations series in Singapore gives a better understanding of the team’s capabilities and more playing time.

“We want to build on the success and lessons of previous friendlies to ensure we enter the tournament at the top of our game.

The weight of expectations

Team captain Gabong said playing for PNG comes with huge responsibility and expectations.

She says that sometimes the hardest thing about representing your country is when you don’t succeed.

“People expecting us to win when we compete abroad are way too high, but there’s not much we can do,” Gabong said.

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“But the feeling we get when we’re about to step onto the pitch in another country, with the jersey in the colors of PNG, while singing the national anthem as our flag is hoisted, it’s the best thing we can have in our life.

“We just want to stay focused and take each day at a time, to prepare to go out there and compete in the OFC Cup,” Gabong said.

Before kicking off their campaign to excel on the international stage in Fiji, the PNG women still have three domestic friendlies and a few international matches scheduled for June, in a journey with real purpose.

“I’m pretty sure qualifying for the World Cup is everyone’s dream and individually as players it’s our dream,” Gabong said.

Patricia Keamo is a sports reporter at the National in Papua New Guinea. She is part of ABC International Development’s Women in News and Sport initiative, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under the Team Up programme.

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