Political rift between PNG's rival soccer factions shows no signs of healing anytime soon

Political rift between PNG's rival soccer factions shows no signs of healing anytime soon

Political rift between PNG's rival soccer factions shows no signs of healing anytime soon

Updated 28 January 2018, 8:45 AEDT

The officially sanctioned National Soccer League kicks off the 2018 season with just seven clubs as the rival breakaway National Premier League, which started life with 12 clubs, plans to add even more when its new season starts later in the year.

Sports fans in Papua New Guinea are used to political battles — the national sport of rugby league has been riddled with disputes over the years, the fight for control of the PNG Rugby Union is unresolved, and so too is the battle over who should run the national soccer competition.

Once again this year there will be two national soccer leagues operating in PNG, but once again it will be the one with the fewest teams that has FIFA's official endorsement.

Key points:

  • PNG Football Association blames dominance of rugby league for its struggles
  • Former PNG goalkeeper backs National Premier League model
  • NSL says there is no real pathway for NPL players

The rival factions in PNG soccer have been at war for more than 18 months, but while the officially sanctioned National Soccer League (NSL) has kicked off the 2018 season with just seven clubs, the breakaway National Premier League (NPL), which started life with 12 clubs, has plans to add even more when its new season starts later in the year.

Although the NPL would appear to have stolen a march, chief executive of the PNG Football Association (PNG FA), Dimirit Mileng, blames the dominance of rugby league for the NSL's struggles.

"The breakaway is not an issue to us, I can assure you of that," Mileng said.

"We've got our football going and we are doing everything that we are guided by under the constitution of the football association. The breakaway league is just a social activity."

But comments like that only provoke laughter from the founder of the NPL, John Kapi Natto, who argues that the PNG FA needs to get its own house in order.

"I get a kick out of it when I hear people say that the National Premier League does not have the quality, that's just media propaganda," Kapi Natto said.

"We talk about the other league as the National Soccer League, and yet they didn't conclude their finals, and they have violated statutes by sending teams to the Oceania Champions League."

While it comes as no surprise that Kapi Natto is defending his own competition, he has the backing of others involved, like the former PNG goalkeeper David Aua.

NPL is the right model: former PNG goalkeeper

As a coach, Aua took the team from the village of Papaka in Central Province all the way to the inaugural NPL grand final, before they fell to PNG's most successful club, Hekari United.

"That's a testament to the tournament," Aua said.

"Getting a team of village boys, training them up and getting them to a standard where they took on Hekari, and after almost beating them in the home and away rounds, that's a testament on its own, the standard was very high."

Aua's view is that the NPL model is the one to follow, as it is reaching out across the country, with plans for two new conferences in the Highlands and the Niugini Islands.

It is a blueprint that Natto has put to Deputy Sports Minister Wesley Raminai and it is one he said the Minister was ready to run with as he seeks to bring the rival factions together.

Nowhere to go on NPL pathway, NSL says

Against that background, Aua believes it is time for players and officials involved in the breakaway competition to stand up in the interests of restoring harmony, and even though he is in the rival camp, Mileng said he could see some merit in what the NPL is doing.

"We have no problem with what they are doing," Mileng said.

"Going out and getting people to play football, that's fine.

"Eventually though their players will see they can't go anywhere on that pathway, and then they will have to come back and join our national association."

And that is where the impasse lies: how to get Natto, and his rival in the PNG FA, President David Chung, on the same page.

Kapi Natto hopes Mr Raminai may be able to mediate, but that tactic is fraught with danger because FIFA, the world ruling body, does not tolerate any suggestion of political interference in national associations.

There are also many questioning Chung acting as judge and jury over who should run soccer in PNG, a question that Chung's CEO clearly does not want to tackle, at least in public.

As President of both the PNG FA and the regional confederation, OFC, and a high ranking official within FIFA, many observers argue that there is a clear conflict of interest.

But Mileng would offer no comment on that suggestion, saying only that his job was to make sure that the football association functions year-in and year-out according to the constitution that is in place for the good of all football players.

"And if anyone feels that they are not satisfied with what is happening, they need to get in it to change it," Mileng said.

But that is exactly where the dispute began when Kapi Natto tried to take on Chung for the FA presidency in 2016, only to be controversially excluded from the election.

The founder of the NPL insisted then that he had majority support, and he believes that is still the case now.

"Ninety per cent of the country's going with me, the Government is going with me, the provincial governments are going with me," Kapi Natto said.

"They see that my program is going right down to the rural areas, so they're supporting me in what I'm doing.

"So I'm going to keep on going with that vision."