Warren Moon: the Australian coach out to revolutionise football in Papua New Guinea

<span>Warren Moon pictured during his tenure as Brisbane Roar coach. The Australian is now on a mission to revolutionise Papua New Guinean football.</span><span>Photograph: Albert Perez/Getty Images</span>
Warren Moon pictured during his tenure as Brisbane Roar coach. The Australian is now on a mission to revolutionise Papua New Guinean football.Photograph: Albert Perez/Getty Images

It sounds like the script of a Hollywood movie – a Western coach is parachuted into a small country in the Pacific, given a terrible football team and charged with the impossible goal of getting them to the World Cup. Hijinks ensue, as the coach attempts to improve the ragtag bunch of players.

It sounds like a film because it is; Next Goal Wins stars Michael Fassbender and was directed by Taika Waititi. The 2023 movie was based on the real-life exploits of Dutchman Thomas Rongen, who coached American Samoa.

Now, former Brisbane Roar coach Warren Moon is out to emulate Rongen with Papua New Guinea. The Australian has been in charge of the Kapuls, currently ranked 166 in the world, since October following a chance encounter at the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

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“Once I finished at the Roar I wanted to take some time out,” Moon says. “I did some scouting in the Women’s World Cup and Tom Sermanni [former Matildas coach], had a friend in PNG and said, ‘would I be interested in applying’.

“I was interested in trying to help PNG football, which historically hasn’t really taken off in Oceania, despite the fact it’s probably one of the largest countries by population in the region. It’s not going to be easy, but at the same time I’ve been really surprised by the talent but also humbled by the people and what great people they are.

“It’s a pleasure to work with them and just to see what they sacrifice to play football, because a lot of these guys do it for less than $70 back in their homeland, but their commitment to PNG football and the national team is something that’s been inspiring.”

Moon has been coaching since 2008 and was in charge of the Roar from 2020 to 2023. Fifteen months ago he was sacked by the A-League Men club and he took on the PNG job, initially on a three-month basis, without ever having previously visited the country.

The first seven months in charge have been an eye-opener for the 41-year-old. He has been thrown into the deep end and had to deal with everything from kit issues to visa problems. But after 3-0 wins over Tuvalu and the Cook Islands, and a 1-1 draw with Vanuatu in last year’s Pacific Games, in February Moon’s contract was extended for another year.

The Australian is ambitious but faces myriad challenges in trying to turn around football in one of the world’s poorest countries. The Kapuls rely on predominantly domestic-based players, who play in the semi-professional Papua New Guinea National Soccer League, where there is a fierce struggle against the facilities, oppressive weather and a lack of conditioning, competitive matches and experienced coaches.

“They don’t have many domestic matches, they only have 14 a year,” he says. “I was quite surprised and impressed by the level of the competition, in terms of the talent and the technique. [But] the challenges are the weather – it’s hot all year round and games are played in the day. Players need to get fitter and better prepared. A lot of the methods are in need of some education. There’s hardly any accredited coaches in PNG, if any.”

There’s also the cross-code fight for funding with rugby league, which is often described as a religion in the island nation.

“Rugby league is considered the national sport but football’s probably got the bigger following,” Moon says. “It’s more popular across the whole of PNG. In Port Moresby especially, rugby league is number one and more funding goes into rugby league, just like in Australia.

“But there’s close to 18 million people in PNG, it’s a large country and there’s a real love of the game across the whole country. So now is the time to do it. There’s more Fifa programs in place for funding, so it’s a good time now to try and make a real change.”

Moon is not only working with the senior men’s national team, but with the junior national teams too in a bid to revamp Papua New Guinea’s entire football landscape. His herculean long-term target? To get the Kapuls into the 2034 World Cup.

“It has to be the dream for us,” he says. “If there’s one and a half or two spots from Fifa by the time the 2034 World Cup comes round, if we assume [one place] is going to be New Zealand, then why not PNG to be the second team to represent Oceania? I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility if we can put things in place now.

“We have to be realistic where PNG football is right here and right now… it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We have to make big plans for the future and not everyone is going to be pleased about that... [but] if we’re serious about change we need to see it, do it and deliver it.

“I wouldn’t be silly enough to compare them to the South American countries, but there are similarities about all the kids growing up here in the streets or in villages barefoot and that natural love of the game and that touch on the ball, and their close skills and flair. We don’t want to change that, we want to harness that.”

Moon only saw Next Goal Wins in March, ironically on the plane to Sri Lanka to compete in the Fifa World Series. The Australian was struck by the similarities with his own situation but remains steadfast in his belief that proper progress can be made with the Kapuls.

“It could be a long way in the future and I may not be involved in it then, but hopefully it’s the start of getting Oceania football, and PNG football in particular, in the right direction as I genuinely think they could be far more competitive and produce many more players,” he said.

“There’s so much talent there, anything’s possible for these players because the natural talent is there.”