Thursday 01 June 2017, 08:02

Prolific Gunemba rides atop PNG’s wave of success

  • Papua New Guinea's fate in their own hands as OFC's World Cup qualifying resumes

  • The game in PNG has made massive strides in recent years

  • Star striker Raymond Gunemba says the national team has new-found confidence

Had the penalty shoot-out which decided last year’s OFC Nations Cup final panned out differently, it would have been Papua New Guinea representing Oceania at this month’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. PNG lost to New Zealand after 120 scoreless minutes, though they made history simply by reaching the decider.

Papua New Guinea’s reinvigorated side are very much a single unit rather than a team of stars, but if there was one man who played an integral part in last year’s ground-breaking achievement, it was Raymond Gunemba.

The man spearheading PNG’s attack hit five goals as the Kapuls far surpassed any of their previous achievements at international level. It was also a significant personal achievement for Gunemba, who became just the second non-New Zealand or Australia player to outright win the tournament’s golden boot.

Gunemba is now the captain of Lae City Dwellers, the current champions who finally wrested the title from long-term champions Hekari two years ago, and then again last season. It is quite an achievement considering Port Moresby heavyweights Hekari – who famously secured unlikely qualification for the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup – had won all eight previous editions of the national league.

European flavour Domestic success has all been part of a whirlwind couple of years for late-bloomer Gunemba, who turns 31 this weekend. And there could be more to come. Papua New Guinea have their 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ fate very much in their own hands. Four points from the upcoming home and away ties against Solomon Islands will shore up another first – a spot in the Oceania zone play-off final, where New Zealand once again await.

Gunemba says the impact of Danish coach Flemming Serritslev - who arrived in PNG 18 months ago - combined with the Nations Cup success on home soil, has been monumental for the local game. “Last year was the first time in history that we achieved such a result,” Gunemba told FIFA.comfrom the team’s training camp in Port Moresby. “It was a wonderful achievement for the team and for the country."

Septuagenarian Serritslev – a one-time national team contemporary of Danish icon Allan Simonsen - has added a touch of European pragmatism to PNG’s natural attacking instincts. Gunemba says there is a marked change in the team since he first donned the national colours during 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

“Flemming is a good coach who has lifted our commitment, team bonding and belief,” Gunemba said. “He likes to play fast, one-two touch, high-tempo football. Compared to 2012, our team (quality) is quite different.”

Life-changing experience It’s no exaggeration to say last year’s tournament changed Gunemba’s life. His goals at the continental championship brought about offers from New Zealand, Malaysia and, quirkily, Cambodia. Gunemba went abroad for the first time, and enjoyed a successful stint with New Zealand national league side Hamilton Wanderers.

Gunemba was part of an unprecedented number of PNG players to link with overseas clubs during the past 12 months. “I learned a lot and was able to bring back that experience to my local club and the national team,” said Gunemba, who is seeking to head abroad again in the near future. “With good results in our World Cup qualifiers, we hope to see more players go overseas.”

Papua New Guinea will make the short journey across the Solomon Sea to tackle their Melanesian neighbours on 9 June, before the decisive return four days later in Port Moresby.

PNG didn’t feature in World Cup qualifying as recently as the South Africa 2010 campaign. So what would qualifying for the Oceania play-off final mean to a nation still riding high after hosting last year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup? “It would be a big achievement for PNG and for football in this country,” Gunemba said. “In the past we haven’t achieved these kinds of results. Rugby League is the No1 sport in PNG, but most people play soccer.”

They might have narrowly missed a ticket to the Confederations Cup, but the opportunity to contest a ticket to Russia next year is still on offer. What a stage that would be for Gunemba and his team-mates to display their wares.