Perseverance has paid off for Papua New Guinea international defender Alwin Komolong this week when he put pen to paper with German third tier side SC Fortuna Köln.
The 24-year-old has spent the past few months in Europe working hard for another break after he was left without a club following Stuttgart Kickers relegation to the Oberliga, Germany’s fifth tier in 2018.
Trials at Czech Republic clubs FK Pardubice and Jihlava proved unsuccessful, and the defender returned to Germany without a contract and with little on the horizon.
“I kept fit at Holstein Kiel who are a 2 Bundesliga side, but I was training with the U23 side who play in the fourth tier of German football.”
The Northern Kentucky University graduate elected to stay in Germany over the Christmas break hoping for something to come up. What followed was a call from his agent, saying that his ex-coach at Stuttgarter Kickers had offered him a trial opportunity at Fortuna Köln.
“I played three matches and trained through the winter break, and now I’ve been rewarded with a contract through to the end of the season,” says Komolong.
His dedication paid off and while the end result has been positive, the Madang man is brutally honest on the difficulties of cracking the professional football ranks.
“Coming to Europe there are some harsh realities you have to face with football. Moving up the ranks isn’t so easy and there is a huge number of players all with the same goals and aspirations. Many of them have more experience and preparation from their time spent at the top youth academies at various Bundesliga clubs.”
“However my will, determination and perseverance helped me measure up and compete against these types of players, and now my efforts have been rewarded again,” says Komolong.
The time away from home is not new to Komolong, who first left Papua New Guinea for high school in New Zealand at age 16. After captaining the national under 17 side in 2011 he was offered a football scholarship at Liston College in Auckland.
He has been on the road ever since. Naturally, homesickness has been a battle that he has fought on regular occasions.
“Leaving home at such a young age prepared me well for life away from PNG but it is still tough to handle. I get homesick every now and again, especially seeing pictures of family and friends all having a good time back home in the sun!” laughs Komolong.
“There have been a few times when doubt creeps in your mind and things weren’t going my way and I thought, “I should just go home”, but I stuck it out and just tried to keep myself occupied and stay busy with training.”
“My mind set has always been if I can stick it out and make a career out of football, it’ll make them proud of me, and my achievements are theirs too. Many have supported me along the way and still do. That drive to be a professional athlete, one of the few Papua New Guineans that plays outside of home and is doing good things in Europe is what keeps me going,” says Komolong.
Komolong is part of a golden generation of footballers from Papua New Guinea, which includes others that have ventured outside of the Pacific nation including David Browne (Netherlands), Nigel Dabinyaba (Malaysia), Raymond Gunemba, Roland Bala and Tommy Semmy (New Zealand) and Wira Wama (USA).
Younger brother Felix –his centre-back partner in the heart of defence for the PNG national team – has followed in his footsteps and is currently on the roster at Northern Kentucky University in the USA.
Komolong is also adamant that others from PNG and the Pacific can follow his lead and ply their trade in Europe, provided they are patient and understand the challenges they will face on and off the pitch.
“Europe will come as a culture shock for sure, and maybe our players would need an adjustment period to adapt to the football, but more importantly the stuff off the pitch.”
“The main difference is back home you have that support around you through family and friends, and you might not play well sometimes but there are people to pick you up. There isn’t that wantok system here, or the family support that you have back home when things get tough.”
Mental toughness has been key for the defender who has displayed extraordinary discipline to return to professional football.
“Just to get this opportunity was a seven month work-in-progress. It helped that I kept fit at Holstein Kiel but that was all voluntary, turning up and training every day and not getting paid or anything, just running and training in the hope that if something comes along I would be ready for it,” says Komolong.
He is also realistic in terms of his long-term ambitions and what the game can provide in Germany.
“The goal has always been to play as high as I can here, Bundesliga is the dream but you have to be realistic too, and set more achievable goals. I always thought Bundesliga 3 was achievable and now I’ve signed here, who knows if I can have a good season things can happen pretty quickly here,” says Komolong.
And although they have been in a hiatus for a period of time, Komolong is quick to reiterate his commitment to the Papua New Guinea national team should the call come in the future.
“The national team has been a vehicle for everything I done, the under 17s got me to New Zealand, the under 20s helped me to America, and the under 23s and national team helped me get to Germany.”
It was former PNG national team coach Flemming Serritslev that initially set the wheels in motion for a move to Europe. Convinced Komolong could make it in Europe as a professional the Danish coach’s recommended an agent and a platform was established.
“Flemming’s trust in me and my agents trust in me laid a foundation for my initial trial in Germany, which convinced Stuttgarter Kickers to sign me and paved the way for further opportunities in Europe,” says Komolong.
Blessed with his part German heritage and family support the immediate challenge for Komolong is to break into the starting line-up and contribute week-in and week-out.
“For him, the contract with Fortuna is a great opportunity. In order to help the team, he must continue to work hard on himself,” says Fortuna coach Tomasz Kaczmarek.
SC Fortuna Köln currently sit 15th in the 20 team 3 Bundesliga and will travel to second-placed SC Karlsruher this weekend.