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PNG reaching for new heights

Before then, however, there will be another first as one of the region’s fastest growing football nations welcome their neighbours for the maiden OFC Nations Cup in PNG.

The continental championship doubles as 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying, where six of the eight teams will advance to the next stage. The other prize on offer – and one far more difficult to attain – is the title of continental champions, with a ticket to the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 the rich reward on offer.

Such an achievement would comfortably be a new high watermark for PNG, and crown what is already an historic year. Charged with achieving this unlikely target is an equally improbable figure in Flemming Serritslev. Hailing from Denmark, Serritslev is embarking on his maiden World Cup campaign as a head coach a year shy of his 70th birthday.

Serritslev arrived in PNG late last year, and quickly determined that the Melanesian nation contains many rough-hewn diamonds amid its playing population. “The players are very willing to learn, and very motivated,” Serritslev told FIFA.com. “They are very easy to work with and so far it is has been a really good experience.”

Almost the entire national team squad are currently participating in the OFC Champions League, featuring for either perennial champions Hekari United or new challengers Lae City Dwellers. That many of the players are spread across just two clubs is a blessing for Serritslev.

PNG is Oceania’s biggest nation, but it is also one of the world’s most rurally-based populations and the Dane believes there is enormous scope for future growth.

“It is very expensive to run a national championship, because you have to fly everywhere,” he said. “But for me, the biggest problem is finding all the talent across PNG because of the (lack of) infrastructure. I’m sure there are many boys and girls in rural areas who we haven’t found yet because of this problem.”

Serritslev is well known in Denmark having featured as a gritty midfielder for many years at Vejle, one of the dominant clubs of the 1970s, where he lined up alongside the nation’s original footballing superstar, Allan Simonsen.

The genial Serritslev also has lengthy experience in various Denmark national team guises including as Olympic team coach, plus an eight-year stint as senior team assistant coach during the 1990s. Serritslev says adapting to life in PNG was “not difficult” having worked in nations as diverse as Iran, Nigeria and Armenia, aside from his native Denmark.

PNG recently took to the field for the first time in 18 months, when they visited neighbouring Solomon Islands for a two-match series. A win and a loss against the unpredictable Bonitos in Honiara suggest that the combination of Serritslev’s knowledgeable guiding hand, combined with Melanesian flair, could prove to be an intoxicating mix.

“We played very badly in the first match, where we never found the way I wanted them to play,” the Dane said of a 2-0 defeat to open his tenure.

“But in the second match the team played fast on the ground, and forward when possible creating many chances. Even then, we went down after just 15 seconds, but took hold of the match immediately for a 2-1 win. We faced a different way of playing, and that was a good experience for us.”

Serritslev will take his PNG side on a rare trip outside Oceania when they head to Korea Republic soon for a two-week camp. It is a trip which says much about PNG’s growing ambitions. The Melanesians have a modest track record at continental level, but their experienced Danish mentor believes there is cause for optimism.

“There is a little of pressure (playing at home), but for me playing at home is a big advantage on home soil,” he said.

“It is up to us to make the most of this advantage.

“There are many skillful players in PNG, it is just a matter of playing together as a team. I expect a good performance in front of our home crowd. If we can play like we did in the recent matches against Solomon Islands, I will be very optimistic (of success).”

Story courtesy of FIFA. For more on the world game visit www.fifa.com

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