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PNG potential to be unleashed

OFC Nations Cup Profiles

Papua New Guinea

With a population now hovering around the seven million mark – nearly twice that of Oceania heavyweights New Zealand – Papua New Guinea are the sleeping giants of Pacific football and it is surely only a matter of time before the nation’s true potential is unleashed.

Some of that latent talent has already been realised on the club front – Port Moresby-based Hekari United became the first outfit from a Pacific Islands nation to earn the Oceania title in 2010 – and in the women’s game, in which Papua New Guinea are undoubtedly the strongest of the Pacific sides and the main threat to New Zealand’s dominance.

But the men’s national team are yet to make a real impact on the international scene and have barely registered on the radar in their two previous Nations Cup outings, in 1980 and 2002.

The Kapuls also failed to qualify for the semi-finals of the 2011 Pacific Games, although they did perform strongly at times and missed out on the top four only on goal differential.

Finishing among the semi-finalists is a must this time as those four sides will go on to contest stage three of FIFA World Cup qualifying and Papua New Guinea are shaping as potential darkhorses to earn one of those berths.

They have the benefit of a top-class coach to run proceedings in former Australia manager Frank Farina, who led the Papua New Guinea U-23 side to the semi-finals of the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifier in March.

Farina has brought five members of that team through to the senior set up while the rest of the squad is similar to that which took part in the Pacific Games. The only players who were in neither of those sides but will come to Honiara are Raymond Gunemba, Kema Jack, Roland Conn, Godfrey Baniau and Paul Kawik.

The presence of Jack is a particular boost as he is a talismanic figure and could form a threatening strike partnership with Reginald Davani, who missed most of the Pacific Games through injury.

The experienced Andrew Lepani will use his organisational skills to hold the defence together while the midfield – featuring the likes of key players David Muta and Neil Hans – is where much of Papua New Guinea’s talent appears to lie. Goalkeeper Leslie Kalai now has much experience under his belt after occupying the sticks for Hekari in the O-League and will have to be in good form as he is sure to be tested regularly next month in Honiara.

The Kapuls open their Nations Cup campaign on 2 June against hosts Solomon Islands before meeting defending champions New Zealand (4 June) and Fiji (6 June) as they attempt to progress from the strong-looking Group B.

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