The ex-Man City man leading PNG’s World Cup push

As a player, Spencer Prior was often the underdog – whether helping Cardiff City knock Premier League leaders Leeds out of the FA Cup in 2002, or being part of the Southend United side which stunned a Manchester United team featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.

However the former defender – who played in the Premier League for Norwich, Leicester, Derby and Manchester City – is eyeing the biggest upset of his footballing life.

The 51-year-old is manager of the Papua New Guinea women’s football team, who are two wins away from qualifying for the World Cup.

After ending his playing career, Prior emigrated to Australia in 2007 and took up coaching. He was part of the Australia staff at the 2011 World Cup and has also coached the Thailand women’s team.

He only took the Papua New Guinea job in November last year after being approached by the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and admits it is tougher than anything he has faced in football before.

“I worked in Thailand for two years, that was challenging but this is on another level,” he told BBC Sport.

“When I first started, we arrived in Canberra for a training camp, we had 19 players but no staff, no physio or doctor, no health insurance. These are basic things these players should have.

“We are trying to put in place things to make them prepared, to do in four months what others do in four years.”

With New Zealand qualifying automatically for this summer’s tournament as co-hosts with Australia, there was an opportunity for Papua New Guinea. They won the 2022 OFC Women’s Nations Cup to reach this weekend’s World Cup qualifying play-offs.

They face Panama in New Zealand on Sunday, with the winner facing Chinese Taipei or Paraguay next week. The victor qualifies for the 2023 World Cup, entering a group alongside Brazil, France and Jamaica.

PNG have never qualified for a football World Cup, men’s or women’s, and it would represent an incredible achievement for a team who did not play an international between 2019 and 2022.

Prior’s side are seeded in the play-offs and ranked 51st in the world by Fifa, but the Southend-born coach says this can be disregarded – his side are rank outsiders: underdogs not only in this competition, but in their own country.

Women’s rights in PNG are severely restricted – according to a 2020 report by the Borgen Projectexternal-link, only 18% of girls are enrolled in secondary school, and 80% of male participants self-reported committing physical or sexual violence against female partners.

Prior sees the play-offs as “a great opportunity”.

“I hate the word legacy,” he says. “But if they are successful and get to a World Cup, there would be such a growth of football in PNG. That is the bigger thing to motivate rather than just a World Cup.

“The word is resilience. These players have it in abundance.”

PNG has a fiercely patriarchal society, which Prior says has led to a mixed response to the country’s female football team.

“The players do have people supporting them, those close to them, and there is support in the greater community but it is also very challenging,” he says.

“Females are not massively supported. The team has got a very mixed response back home, very mixed emotions of people getting behind them or not. These girls have had to face opposition to travelling outside of PNG, it is unfamiliar to them.”

PNG have also faced difficulties on the pitch since Prior took over as head coach from Nicola Demaine, who led them to victory at the OFC Nations Cup with a 2-1 win over hosts Fiji in July but was subsequently relieved of her dutiesexternal-link.

They have lost all four matches they have played since that final, including being thrashed 5-1 and 9-0 by the Philippines in back-to-back friendlies last December.

Prior wants ensure the team do themselves justice in the play-offs.

“We are hoping to go in excited and use that as positive, rather than freeze,” he said. “When you play other teams from Oceania, the football is very physical. It’s fightball, not football.

“We had to try and take them to another level with how to defend, how to tackle. If they play Panama like they did Fiji, they would have eight players on pitch.

“It’s not a case of getting rid of their main attributes, but bringing in other stuff as well.”

Prior has done everything from bringing in his own support staff to touring Sydney Football Stadium, location of their opening World Cup game against France on 23 July should they qualify, to show what is at stake.

He is also trying to draw on his own playing experience.

“Every side I played for were underdogs in the Premier League,” he says.

“At Norwich we played in Europe, I was at Leicester with Martin O’Neill when they were just promoted. My Derby team finished eighth, at Man City we had just come up, before the Man City you see now.

“Anything is possible over 90 minutes.”

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