Papua New Guinea may have suffered a 9-0 defeat to open their FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup campaign but, clichéd though it may seem, merely participating was a victory of sorts.
Major sporting events are rare in this part of the world, and Papua New Guinea can now claim to be the first Oceania nation, aside from New Zealand, to host a women’s FIFA World Cup.
Over 12,000 supporters crammed into the impressive Sir John Guise Stadium in the heart of the capital to witness their female U-20 side on the opening day of the tournament. The opponents were football superpower Brazil, no less. It was indeed quite a day, the enormity of which was not lost on the local heroines.
“We were a little nervous and excited before the match,” PNG captain Yvonne Gabong said.
“We were thinking ‘we are now really playing in the World Cup and representing Papua New Guinea’. We will gain a little bit of confidence because of this.
“This means a lot to all of us, to be playing at a World Cup is a great experience. I think it will lift the level of women’s soccer in Papua New Guinea. I’m really proud that I was elected captain of this team, and I’m really proud to lead these girls.”
The family unit is strong in the Pacific and midfielder Gabong, like most of her team-mates, enjoyed support from proud parents and siblings.
“All of us were excited about this game, and to see them in the grandstand gave us more strength,” she said.
But Gabong was more bashful when asked about claiming the unique honour of being PNG’s first-ever captain at a World Cup.
“I never thought I would have such an experience.”
The pre-match Opening Ceremony boasted a strong Melanesian flavour, including traditional dance and music. The unveiling of an oversized PNG flag, in particular, drew an enormous response. Equally, there was excitable support during the match with the noise level rising intensely at the slightest hint of a PNG attack.
Japan, Spain and Brazil all enjoyed massive victories on Matchday 1, but this day was all about Papua New Guinea. It doesn’t get any easier for PNG who now must tackle Sweden on Wednesday, before completing their group commitments against Korea DPR next Sunday.
PNG coach Lisa Cole said her inexperienced side will have learnt much from their World Cup bow.
“We fought from the beginning to the end,” Cole said.
“I’m very proud of these players. We didn’t give up any soft goals and that wasn’t happening nine months ago.
“They were hoping to do a little better than they did, so we will have to work on the confidence. This is the first step for Papua New Guinea women’s soccer, this isn’t the end. Every country has to make that first step in a World Cup at some point. The nerves will be out of the way.
“We will look back on this as an incredible moment for Papua New Guinea women’s football. They played against Brazil in front of a full house, they had Papua New Guineans come out and support us.
“The future is very bright if we make more of an investment. I keep telling them that they have made history, but now we need to continue.”