By Willie Lovai, Games News Service
PORT MORESBY, July 17 – Alwin Komolong (PNG) was Papua New Guinea’s hero as its men’s soccer team secured the bronze medal with a dramatic 2-1 win against Fiji at Sir Hubert Murray Stadium on Friday.
The PNG captain rose highest to head home an injury-time winning goal, moments after Fiji had switched goalkeepers in anticipation of the impending penalty shootout.
It was PNG’s first men’s soccer medal in the Pacific Games since 1987 and coach Rikki Herbert (NZL) believed the victory would have historic resonance.
“This is huge for men’s football. It’s not just one game, it’s the start of a new era,” Herbert said. “We can really change football here and I’m so pleased. I think it has been 30 years since the team got into a medal play-off and the boys have been awesome.
“I think we played very well in the tournament and we were unlucky in other games. We’ve worked so hard and today we got what we deserved.”
PNG goalscorer Komolong had little sympathy for the Fijians’ ill-fated late goalkeeper change.
“That’s football for you,” Komolong said. “I think they (Fiji) were settling for penalties, but we wanted to win too and we probably wanted it more than them. I just tried to get myself into a good position and luckily it went in. This is the start of the something new for us.”
Patrick Aisa scored PNG’s first goal early on with a quick turn and shot, which Fiji goalkeeper Senirusi Bokini will be disappointed not to have stopped.
The first half saw both sides testing each other’s defence but neither dominated play, although Freddy Steven (PNG) kept the Fiji goalkeeper busy and the crowd roaring with his many goal attempts.
Tony Tuivuna equalized for Fiji with a spectacular left-footed strike from the edge of the penalty box just a few minutes into the second half.
The game looked to be heading for penalties, prompting Fiji’s strategy to swap starting goalkeeper Senirusi Bokini with reserve Tevita Koroi in the 90th minute.
But in the first of three minutes of injury time, Komolong placed a header that bounced off the post and past Koroi after a corner from Jacob Sabua (PNG).
Fiji coach Carlos Buzzetti (URU) explained that the replacement keeper was better suited to saving penalties.
“We changed the goalkeeper at the end because there was no extra-time – it would go straight to penalties – and he did so well in the last penalty shootout (against Vanuatu). But it was a fantastic header – there’s nothing you can do,” the coach said.
Buzzetti also believed that playing two tournaments in Port Moresby – his side won the Olympic qualifying competition last week – had taken its toll on his team.
“This Pacific Games has proved it’s impossible to play two tournaments in one. All the coaches say the same thing. We played five games in 10 days and then another two games (in the Pacific Games). Once we’d qualified for the Olympics the players’ minds were not there anymore,” Buzzetti said.
“But the most important thing for us is that we are going to Rio 2016.”