In Papua New Guinea, the most viewed sport is Rugby League similar to most other countries in Oceania. However, the most played sport is football. There are about 300,000 players registered in Papua New Guinea which is way more than Rugby League having only 15,000 registered athletes. In the autonomous region of Bougainville, this is no different.
A few days ago at the time of writing, Bougainville voted for independence at around 98% of the people saying yes. While it’s still not a new country, there are a few steps that need to be taken upon to be the worlds newest nation beating South Sudan.
Obviously Papua New Guinea aren’t a world power in the sport, but they are one of the better sides in Oceania. In the 2016 OFC Nations Cup in which they were hosts, they only lost the final on penalties to the regions powerhouse New Zealand. If the result was reversed in that shootout, they would have gone to the Confederations Cup and faced some of the worlds best.
It should also be noted they have a player who was at Groningen. David Browne was the first Papuan player to play in Europe, though he didn’t get many appearances, it is still a milestone for him and the country. He now plays for Auckland City.
Back to Bougainville after that brief introduction, according to coaches in the country, should they break apart they will have a national team of their own. Whether they will join FIFA or not is another story but now Bougainville would have their own team and it is assumed that the Papuan players from the region would be allowed to switch alliances, similar to Kosovo or the presumed Catalonia.
Bougainville is similar to Catalonia in that sense that it’s been wanting independence since Papua New Guinea became its own thing. This even resulted in a civil war that lasted about 10 years. Part of the reason is because of the resources in the area, another reason is because they believe to be distinct from the rest of PNG.
Due to unrest throughout its history as a cry for independence, football was used to try and create peace to the region. As you may recall, football is the most played sport by quite a margin, despite rugby league being more popular in general.
As a quick backstory of football in the entire country, Papua New Guinea played amateur football since 1976. In 2008, the league became defunct but a semi-pro league known as the NSL (National Soccer League) was in place since 2006. This was the league that former OFC Champions League winners Hekari United took place.
In 2019, when the Bougainville referendum rumours were taking place, there were two football clubs founded in an attempt to promote peace. The first was FC Bougainville ironically located in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
2019 saw an expansion to the league. Now there are 27 clubs as opposed to the lower amount in previous years (with no set total). It is also now divided into regions. FC Bougainville would participate in the Southern Conference.
The owner Thomas Taberia, former footballer who was from Bougainville has stated the idea is to unite Bougainville and bring peace to the region. Right before their NSL debut earlier in the year.
Thomas is a very passionate football fan but despite the intention of the club, he signed players from University teams and the former club Mungkas who had been around since the 1970’s. They were also based in Port Moresby, but they only signed a few from Bougainville.
Thomas Taberia said that this is all a part of rebuilding the autonomous region. A good method of reconciliation after the civil war even though that was two decades ago. They said this could help economically and socially.
The other club that was founded for the same purpose, AROB Chebou also participated this year in the expanded NSL.
This club was founded for the same purpose but with a different approach. AROB Chebu can only sign players from Bougainville and are actually based in the region. The objective of the club is promoting Bougainville’s “hidden talent” and eventually play in the OFC Champions League.
While FC Bougainville failed to qualify for the playoffs, AROB Chebu succeeded and finished first in their group, albeit in an easier conference. This qualified them for the NSL playoffs where they would take on Eastern Stars from the capital of Port Moresby.
Despite it taking place away from the island, fans had shown up waving Bougainville flags and supporting the team. It is unknown whether these were away fans or based in Port Moresby, but it was a nice sight regardless for people from the region.
AROB Chebu had lost 2-0 and Eastern Stars were the team to take on giants Hekari United in the semi-final. It was a formidable first campaign for the North Solomon side.
This clearly united the region to an extent, but there have also been other attempts to do so such as a whole tournament. Known as the Besta Cup only played in the New Guinea Island and is a youth tournament that is to promote the youth in the area to the country and the PNGFA.
Timothy Masiu, former footballer and current politician helped organize the games in Arawa, the supposed future capital of Bougainville, for 2019.
This turned out to be a disappointment however, as the other New Guinea Island regions refused to participate in the tournament. There was little support from the PNGFA president as he did not show up to the opening ceremony, nor did the Besta company executives.
There were still 30 teams from the autonomous region participating and this wasn’t an inaugural tournament as Masiu had helped support sending the teams to the other islands in prior years. However, there was reluctancy to play the Besta Cup from the other islands more than likely due to lack of support.
There are still a couple steps until Bougainville is officially the worlds newest country, if it does happen, but there is certainly an interest in the sport in the region even with the recent introduction to Rugby’s 7 which has been growing in popularity.
The politicians and club owners are very passionate about the sport and there is a bright future for football in the country in Oceania.