One man in the crowd at Papua New Guinea’s opening match of the OFC U-20 Championship in Port Vila was casting a more discerning eye than most.
Papua New Guinea national team coach Flemming Serritslev cast a critical gaze on the performances of players in Peter Gunemba’s U-20 side to see who might be able to step up to the senior side.
Primarily, Serritslev’s concern is succession planning so the process of transforming Papua New Guinea into a regional football force – a process which took a major step with making the final of the OFC Nations Cup in July – can continue.
“First of all I am here to scout our own players because we know that in two or three years there will be a couple of national team players coming to the end of their careers,” said the 69-year-old.
“We will need replacements ready to keep this process rolling so that when this generation of players who played in the Nations Cup are finished, we don’t suddenly find we have nobody to take over.”
The former assistant coach to the Denmark sides that won the 1992 European Championship and 1995 FIFA Confederations Cup is nine months into his latest role and would not rule out giving some of Gunemba’s charges an early promotion with the next stage of FIFA World Cup qualifying approaching.
“I’ll not say no to that. We saw on the first game here in Port Vila – I know we didn’t do well in the second half – but there were at least two or three very good talents that may be invited for training camps to see how they manage when they are together with stronger players than they are facing here.”
Serritslev has already introduced young talent successfully. Nineteen-year-old Felix Komolong, now captain of the U-20s, was thrown into the heart of the Kapuls defence, alongside his brother Alvin.
“I was lucky to find such a good combination between Felix and his brother. There’s no doubt that Alvin had a very positive impact on Felix. Alvin is a couple of years older and has a bit more experience and through the tournament Alvin was one of our best.
“Felix is still young but he is willing to learn and that’s so important in young players. He is a guy who is absolutely willing to learn and he wants to have a career in football. I’m sure he’ll get it.
“He’s still making some mistakes but he’s eager to learn and he knows that when I’m guiding him it’s not to criticise but to help him and help the team get better.”
A Technical Instructor for UEFA, Serritslev was in Auckland midway through last year to lead the first OFC A Licence course when a colleague planted the idea of a new challenge.
The talent he saw during a one week camp in November in Lae convinced Serritslev to take the role and a month later he was appointed on a two year contract.
“I have absolutely no regrets. The players are wonderful to work with. They are very committed to their sport and all want to learn.
“We put them through a very physically tough training camp but there were never any complaints and in the Nations Cup it showed that our players were physically very well prepared, especially in the final when we played 120 minutes and New Zealand were just as tired as we were, even though they had many full-time professionals.”
An injection of defensive steel – the success of the Komolong pairing a big factor in that – without sacrificing his side’s inherent attacking talent was a catalyst in Papua New Guinea’s run to their first OFC Nations Cup final in 43 years of trying.
“We were able to play good football and a very attacking style. We had a lot of shots on goal, twice as much as the next best team in the Nations Cup,” Serritslev said.
“But what was most important for me is that in the last four games we’ve played including the 2-0 win over Malaysia we’ve only had one goal scored against us and, like it or not, every match starts with the defence, and if that’s strong you can normally score one or two especially with our strikers who are very dangerous.”
While the penalty shootout loss denied Papua New Guinea an historic trip to the FIFA Confederations Cup, they have recalibrated their sights on World Cup qualification.
Stage 3 of the Road to Russia qualifying begins in November, although the Kapuls will wait to the second and third windows in March and June 2017 for their matches against Solomon Islands and Tahiti.
Serritslev is predicting a difficult race to the OFC Stage 3 final between three evenly matched teams but believes their OFC Nations Cup performances and a newly awakened belief sets them in good stead.
“In my opinion anything can happen in those qualifiers. We are optimistic because suddenly it occurred to the players that they are good enough. As good as the teams we’re competing against.
“The players may not be among the very best I have worked with but they are absolutely the most committed. If we continue being as committed then I believe we can continue our run towards qualifying towards the World Cup.
“It’s a very big goal to have for a team that was 206th in the world rankings when I started but you have to say it’s not unrealistic. At least in the region we have shown we can match anyone including the big brother New Zealand.”