The island of Bougainville, ravaged by invasion and civil war throughout its history, is scheduled to gain independence from Papua New Guinea by 2027, and with it, become football's newest international side, writes Craig Stephen.
Credit: Papua New Guinea FA

Once war-torn and impoverished Bougainville will become FIFA’s 212th member if its transition to independence from Papua New Guinea is as straightforward as it should be.

Self-determination is the result of the small autonomous region voting overwhelmingly – by 98 per cent – to split from PNG in 2019 in a peaceful vote overseen by the former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. Difficult diplomatic talks have since taken place between officials and the respective leaders, with a tentative plan for independence before 2027. That’s if the PNG side does not put any more roadblocks in the way.

With political independence will come a new national football federation and likely inclusion in the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and therefore the world governing body. That’s a prospect the President of the Bougainville Football Federation has given considerable thought to.

“If the Papua New Guinea Government grants independence to Bougainville, then we can apply for the membership to FIFA,” says Justin Helele. “But I also believe FIFA recognises autonomous regions throughout the world as members of their organisation. This will only come about if we comply with the PNG Football Association. Currently, we have a lot of work on our shoulders if we want to head that way. In the meantime, Bougainville can push the PNG FA to recognise as a fifth region under the Sports Foundation structure,” he says referring to the PNG government’s sport agency.

It’s hardly going to be a major player, with a population of 250,000, but the Melanesian region will still be one of the more populous nations in Oceania and offer some competition in a part of the world lacking in it.

The Oceania Football Federation is the newest of FIFA’s six confederations, with its birth not occurring until the late 1960s. The idea was conceived and pushed by FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous and taken up enthusiastically by Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji with New Caledonia keen to join but hindered by its colonial domination by France.

The first Oceania tournament was due to take place in 1971 but was cancelled, and by the time the 1973 tournament was held, the Australians had joined Asia. That move proved beneficial as they qualified for the 1974 World Cup and while failing to progress, came away with a creditable draw against Chile. The Aussies returned to Oceania in 1978 but were a poor side for the 1982 campaign in which New Zealand battled through an incredible 15 matches to qualify for Spain. Australia never qualified again until they left for Asia a second time, and have since been semi-regulars at the finals.

The departure of the Aussies has been to all team’s advantage with the more level playing field resulting in the All Whites being given a chance of qualification in the past three finals – succeeding in one of them, when they overcame Bahrain 1-0 in a frenzied atmosphere in the capital Wellington on a hot November night in 2009. The All Whites haven’t always been the domineering force it would have been expected with their relatively prosperous national league and representation in Australia’s A-League of one team Wellington Phoenix.

Tahiti took advantage of a weak New Zealand in the 2012 Oceania Nations Cup to secure the region’s spot in the following year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil, where they lost all three games heavily, including a 10-0 drubbing by Spain.

Football is the main sport in several countries such as Tahiti, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands, but struggles to compete against rugby and/or rugby league in New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands. That’s a scenario the region is well adjusted to and there is something of an understanding that the codes focus on their own constituencies without trying to outdo each other. Millions of dollars have gone into the game around the Pacific to improve facilities and standards, and the formation of the Oceania Champions League has boosted the club game. While the champions have generally come from New Zealand, this year AS Pirae of Tahiti represented Oceania at the Club World Cup in Qatar.

Whether Bougainville is ready to compete internationally is a moot point. Its teams have only occasionally been competitive in Papua New Guinea’s National Soccer League which has been dominated by two teams, Hekari United and Lae City, since its inception in 2006.

One of two outfits to represent the archipelago on a national level has been FC Bougainville which was based in the capital Port Morseby due to logistics, with players recruited from both Bougainville and the city. FCB came fourth in the Southern Conference of the league in 2019 and fifth in a united league the following season to just miss out on the play-offs. A team based in the region itself, Chebu AROB FC – the team of the Bougainville Football Federation – finished in the top two of the island’s conference in its debut season in 2019 but neither club featured in the 2021 NSL. Helele is hopeful FC Bougainville can be revived for the 2022 season.

It’s understandable that Bougainvillians want to be free of PNG rule. The region is closer to the Solomon Islands than Port Morseby and was once known as the North Solomons. Germany, Britain and Australia have all laid claim to it, and the Japanese invaded it in 1942 to establish a pan-Pacific base. The bloody civil war of 1988 to 1997 is believed to have claimed the lives of up to 20,000 people.

Since the ceasefire between the PNG military and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, football has played a pivotal role in bringing some form of peace and unity to the territory in projects such as the local association’s kids’ football programme. The logical step now is to progress this, to get at least one team involved in the national set-up and to establish a strong local league in readiness for independence.