The PNG Football Stadium is located 13,996km from London in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. A stadium that plays host to a nation ranked 180th in the world, who have never qualified for the World Cup and don’t have a professional league. Surely then, it is a place of little significance to the footballing world?
That is certainly the trap the western media have fallen into. In fact, Papua New Guinean football lies at the heart of a fresh corruption scandal, picking at old wounds from the days of Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA chief who was ousted from the organisation in 2015. While the old man sits at home rueing the break-up of his empire, still no doubt chuntering about how it was all a set-up, step forward new antagonist David Chung.
This is the story of football’s biggest corruption scandal you haven’t heard about.
Chung moved to Papua New Guinea in 1985 from his homeland Malaysia and quickly rose up the ranks from football player, to referee, to coach, to senior official and finally becoming the president of the Papua New Guinea Football Association (PNG FA) in 2004. He was elected onto the FIFA Council and in 2011 elected president of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) after his predecessor, Reynald Temarii, was caught selling his vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts.
Chung helped found the country’s first semi-professional league, boosting both women’s and grassroots football, as well as overseeing the construction of a new national football academy and technical centre which saw him earn an OBE in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
Chung’s achievements highlight what a key player in world football he had made himself.
Though the OFC is only comprised of 14 nations — many of whom are some of FIFA’s smallest members — Chung’s power was extensive. He was a close ally of Blatter’s and, unlike his other cronies Issa Hayatou and Jack Warner, Chung not only managed to maintain his position but was elevated to the position of Senior Vice President of FIFA. Behind Gianni Infantino, he was the second most powerful man in football.
It all came crashing down this April, however, when he resigned from his positions citing personal reasons. Might these have been that he was facing a vote of no confidence from the OFC? Or perhaps the news that FIFA were to audit the OFC’s finances, which have not been made public since 2015.
The allegations he now faces revolve around the $20 million building project for OFC’s new headquarters in Auckland. Blatter approved a $10 million loan for the project — not a crime, but the practice of generous gifts to smaller nations in return for their support was common place during the Blatter administration.
The investigation surrounds the companies awarded the building contracts. It appears that many were handed the contracts without a tendering process, despite the fact they had been set up shortly before they were awarded the contracts and had no track record or experience. Some are even believed to have close relationship with Chung-owned companies.
To those close to events in Papua New Guinea though, Chung was always a shady figure. As ABC’s Richard Ewart recalls; “I encountered David Chung at the Pacific Games in Port Moresby in 2015, but before I could approach him, I was told by the former OFC media manager who I was working with that Chung didn’t do interviews.”
Chung casts a reclusive figure, and this only raised suspicions. “Every request to OFC Media was stonewalled or just turned down. He spent most of his time in Auckland on OFC business, or in Zurich on FIFA business. Heaven knows how he rose that high, so PNG football was in my opinion, an afterthought for Chung.”
The signs of neglect are clear. While Chung presided in Zurich, football in Papua New Guinea was falling apart. Sadly, though, this is nothing new for the country.
When asked for his views on Chung’s failures, Ewart revealed; “Pacific sport of all codes is rife with issues of governance. PNG Rugby League was locked in a court battle between rival factions some years ago and PNG Rugby Union factions are currently going through mediation, so the split in PNG FA ranks is no real surprise. I suppose the difference though is that this was a battle not between factions but Chung and John Kapi Natto.”
John Kapi Natto is a popular name in Papua New Guinea, mostly for denouncing Chung and accusing him of corruption. His grievances stem from the PNG FA election in 2016, from which Natto was controversially excluded. The election was pushed back, Natto would argue to allow Chung more time to canvas support, for which he was struggling. In the end, this did not matter as Natto was suspended three weeks before the vote with the reason given being “non-compliance to FIFA electoral code.”
Was Chung behind Natto’s suspension? That is yet to be proven, but it was just the latest of Chung’s run-ins with local officials. Prior to the vote, seven local associations were suspended as the PNG FA claimed they could not provide evidence of the payment of their annual subscription fees. Natto’s pleas to FIFA about this and Chung’s re-election fell on deaf ears and he decided on a drastic course of action.Embed from Getty Images
Natto owns Hekari United, Papua New Guinea’s most successful club. They have won eight league titles and are the only side from the country to win the OFC Champions League and appear in the Club World Cup.
The day after the vote, Hekari — along with 12 of the 18 teams playing in the National Soccer League (NSL) — withdrew from the competition. The way Natto was able to mobilise support for such radical action so quickly — according to Oceanic football expert Ola Bjerkovoll — is typical of the feeling towards Chung in the country.
“I think Natto got tired of being ignored and when his accusations didn’t go anywhere, he decided to take matters into his own hands. I think it [the breakaway] had more to do with people being tired of Chung than them loving Natto so much.”
The rebel clubs subsequently formed their own federation and league competition — the National Premier League (NPL), comprising 12 sides, double that of the NSL — which ran concurrently after its inception in 2017. The officially sanctioned NSL suffered from issues, however, including several deferred and cancelled matches, with the finals series scrapped altogether.
Conversely, the new NPL received good attendances, national TV coverage and the competition was actually completed, with Natto’s Hekari crowned champions. The 2018 NSL kicked off with seven clubs but still very much lags behind its rival in terms of success.
As expected, there is significant hostility between the leagues. Hekari were not allowed to enter the Champions League and it was announced that any players that represented NPL clubs would be ineligible for national selection.
Players are allowed to transfer between the leagues but the breakaway clubs are still exiled. Papua New Guinean football has very much split in half. The national team has suffered dramatically because of this, just at a time when a bright future was on the horizon.
The Kapuls reached the final of the 2016 OFC Nations Cup and faced the dominant force on the continent, New Zealand. The game was an extremely tightly contested affair and Papua New Guinea were edged out on penalties. There was serious hope within the country that this momentum could drive them onto go one better when it came to qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
Instead, their campaign ended with a whimper after they finished bottom of their group containing the Solomon Islands and Tahiti. The players picked instead of those playing in the NPL were just not of the same quality as those they were replacing.
A valid question to ask, therefore, is: How was the second most powerful man in football allowed to oversee the collapse of football in his country? And, secondly, why did nobody bat an eyelid? Neither side of the split are available for comment as FIFA have insisted on silence while they mediate, but it is this silence that has been deafening.
To add to his ever-growing charge sheet, Chung is accused of using his connections to block news both in and out of FIFA and of “moving heaven and earth to prevent Natto from winning the 2016 election.” One story tells of a whistle blower being revealed to Chung, who he then publicly denounced as a disgruntled employee.
This may explain the governing bodies’ silence, but the press should not receive a free pass. A google search for David Chung brings you a scantily populated Wikipedia entry and nothing else.
Former BBC and ITV journalist turned academic Charles Lambert believes that “journalists feel that FIFA has gone away as a story. Blatter’s gone and so have Platini, Issa Hayatou and Jack Warner and a lot of the ‘barons’ of that era. The big losers in that process [2022 World Cup bid], the US, will now be hosting the next one so that issue has died down a bit.”
Even in Australia, there is a trend to report only on Pacific Island issues that involve Australian aid money. This silence, considering the media frenzy that ensued around the Blatter-era corruption, is surprising to say the least.
It is an emotive subject for many who stand up for what is right in football.
“The western media isn’t interested because it doesn’t want to be or they simply don’t know it’s happening, which means they’re not doing their jobs. There are a few good sports journalists who do good investigative pieces, but even they don’t know about this story because it’s happening so far away and because no big nation is affected. It’s happening in PNG, it doesn’t matter to them because it’s not the big boys,” was Bjerkovoll’s response to the lack of coverage.
The issue still rumbles on and while FIFA have presented a memorandum of understanding that is believed to have been signed by both sides, a solution still might be a way off. A congress that was due to be held last week to bring the two sides together was cancelled, with a lack of funds cited as the issue.
With this in mind, you can’t help but ask the question: Why does no one seem to care?