By THOMAS HUKAHU
THE news about the passing of a great football coach and mentor Joseph Abraham Turia last month came to many people as a shock.
I had read on social media from someone’s post that Joe Turia, as he is known to many people in Papua New Guinea and the region, had left for the other world.
I was surprised in a way because he looked fitter than most former footballers who usually added extra pounds after retiring from playing in the code.
In the ‘80s, Turia, who is from Gulf, was an idol among young boys and girls playing soccer in Port Moresby and Papua New Guinea.
He was an odd Gulf athlete in that most people from that province starred in rugby league, basketball and athletics.
He and his brother Toru Turia were the exception, they become the top Gulf players in PNG soccer in the 1980’s.
The idol back in the ‘80s
As a kid growing up in Port Moresby in the early ‘80s and taking part in the Port Moresby School Soccer competition for two years, it was part of the routine for my teammates and me to drop by at the Bisini Grounds after our morning matches to see the top PNG footballers perform for their teams.
For De La Salle Bomana students playing in junior football, University FC was the club that we followed and spoke about.
During those days, Turia was one of the key players in the club, alongside other great players like Jasper Patterson and Moses Murray.
(I met Patterson in 1987, when he dropped into Aiyura National High School for a chance visit and I showed him around the school on a Saturday afternoon.)
Turia played as sweeper and was the captain of the PNG men’s national team in the early 80’s. It was a junior footballer’s delight to watch him and University play.
There was a link between University FC and De La Salle in those days where the school’s U-19 team played as the junior team for University and two of the Bomana boys in that team were already playing for the national men’s team because of their advanced knowledge and skills in the beautiful game.
There was this famous story that went around in school that whenever Turia took a spot kick, he usually chose the top two corners of the goalposts to net the ball, hence making it almost impossible for goalkeepers to save his kicks.
Whether that was true or not, the aura of a great national player hovered over little kids like us who played in the U-13 or U-14 divisions.
Turia has been mentioned by many as a top coach and a mentor, and that is correct.
But to me and my peers, 13-year-old boys playing for our school team in those days, Turia was a national football idol.
Internationally, we followed Brazilian Pele, Argentinians Osvaldo Ardiles and Diego Maradona, or Britain’s Garry Lineker and Kenny Dalglish.
On the local stage though, national players like Turia, Daino Sami, Sau Gure, Max Foster, Andrew Waho, Adam Lema, Murray and Wesley Waiwai were idols.
They were the crème de la crème.
Sharp on the pitch and academically
On PNG Football Association’s website, it was mentioned that the late Turia was the tower and the pillar of PNG men’s National Soccer League in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
He last represented PNG in the 1987 Pacific Games in Noumea, New Caledonia where PNG picked up bronze.
The team then was coached by Kisakiu Posman and managed by the late Andrew Waho.
It was mentioned too that PNGFA president John Kapi-Natto joined the chorus of sympathisers to pass on his sincere condolences on behalf of the family to the late Turia’s family for the loss of a great ambassador of football, a mentor and coach and to many current crop of players in the National Soccer League.
On Turia’s Facebook profile page, it is stated that Turia is a graduate of the University of PNG, the University of Melbourne and Kerema High School.
He was not just a top sportsman, he was academically sharp too.
His latest updated post was on August 6, 2020, where he changed his profile pic to that of an eagle.
Whether the eagle is his tribe’s totem or his personal choice, I couldn’t verify that.
But the traits of the eagle must have influenced how he looked at football, hovering above in the air and yet possessing those eyes that picked out details of things below.
Turia offered an opportunity
In 1989 and some months shy of turning 19, I entered the University of PNG as a first-year science student.
Some of my seniors from Aiyura National High School had gathered us together and suggested that we form a football team for the on-campus soccer competition.
The late Paul Igag, Emunare Embe, Joel Silas and Boga Figa were the seniors who got our team registered as Nogat Nem, or NGN.
In junior soccer I started playing as a back, but by the time I was 16, I was usually slotted in as a midfielder in any team I played for, having already refined my ball handling skills.
Additionally, my legs were getting longer, from playing a bit of basketball and Aussie rules too.
NGN was a colourful team with many ex-Aiyura students and a few from Kerevat and later on Passam as well, which included David Dotaona and Roy Karang.
Our ever-green striker in that first year was my course-mate and Solomon Islander Leonard Boaz, who scored two or more goals in each game and consequently won the golden boot at the end of the season.
Among other prizes, NGN won the best and fairest team award in that season.
In that year, Igag and Embe were regular players in the University FC premier reserve team and were training with Turia.
On certain afternoons and as part of our practice, we would do ball drills near where University FC were training under the watchful eyes of coach Posman and assistant Turia.
Our two NGN players would arrange with Turia to come over from their side of the field to where we were and he would talk to us and give us some tips.
By doing that, the idol had now become a mentor to some of us.
One afternoon, after we had completed some drills as assigned to us by Turia, the former PNG skipper called me over and asked if I was playing for a team in the Port Moresby Soccer Association.
“No,” I said.
“Why don’t you come down later this week and have a practice run with the University FC players?” Turia told me.
The next afternoon I was down there at the field with the big name University FC players and going through drills, after a little introduction.
(The only person in the team that I knew personally was Murray. With him being a Wewak islander, the former PNG goalkeeper then was a distant relative. He was a wou, or maternal uncle.)
However, within a few days, I decided not to pursue serious football at that level because I wanted to do well in my studies than playing in one of the best clubs in the nation at that time.
That was a choice I made.
(University students who are serious about football often sacrifice their academic progress for sports and often fail their courses. I was aware of that and as a science student I did not want to repeat courses or semesters. I wanted to get out of university after four years, get employed and support my family.)
Turia was a nice man and whenever he saw me on campus in later years, he would continue to ask me if I would still want to go down and train with University FC.
That was one of the traits of a great sports mentor and talent scout, something that you often see in movies more than in real life in PNG.
Turia was in that class of coaches, looking for new talent, and offering them with opportunities to develop what they possessed.
Meeting during OFC Nations Cup
During the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, I was sitting with a former student of mine in the Sir John Guise Stadium to watch the PNG men’s national team take on the New Zealand All Whites in the grand final.
(That was a historic moment for PNG and the Kapuls made history by keeping the All Whites scoreless in 110 minutes of football.)
Before the match, I looked down to the row just below us and noticed Turia.
He had chosen to come sit here in the outer stand instead of sitting in the grandstand.
(That in itself spoke something about the man. I thought it would have been proper for him to be sitting at the grandstand, on the opposite side of the field, with the VIPs and dignitaries.)
After a few minutes, I reached over and greeted him.
After almost 22 years since last meeting him, I had to introduce myself and told him that two decades ago he had offered me an opportunity that I did not take seriously.
He smiled and we spoke about those years and about his players back then.
We also spoke about junior football and Port Moresby School Soccer where I told him that in 2005 I was in charge of the Salvation Army High School U-15 boys’ team which did well in that season.
“Yes, that Salvation Army side was a very good one,” Turia said.
He was present for the matches then and may have seen my team’s performance.
Coming from a top footballer and national coach, I treasured those comments.
My management skills were polished over the years, including being in charge of the Education Department team in East Sepik’s Public Servants Soccer competition in 1996-1997 as well as playing for Guria FC (with my cousin, the late Benedict Wanga, and West Sepik boys) in the local Wewak competition.
The 2016 meet was the last time I had a chance to speak with Turia.
Influenced PNG and the Pacific
Getting to meet Turia was a great privilege for me.
I got to learn a few things from a boyhood idol who was a former PNG skipper and national coach.
He had the traits of a great coach, he was friendly, approachable, down-to-earth and was more like a big brother to those who knew him.
Turia influenced a lot of top PNG footballers as a coach, mentor and friend.
His influence too extended throughout the Pacific as during the 1990s some of the Pacific islanders who came to UPNG also played for University FC.
Such included the Vanuatu pair of Noel Vari and Russel Nari, two footballers who also played against our teams in the on-campus competition. (They usually teamed up with the Manus team in the campus competition.)
With my journalistic skills, I had worked on some private projects and had thought about getting views from former top-level national coaches to help or for advice and the first person I would have reached out to would have been Turia.
My plan was to contact him when I got back to Port Moresby and discuss a few things with him. That plan will not be possible now.
Despite the many titles Turia wore over the years, he always remained approachable and down-to-earth.
My last note: Thank you, Joe Turia, for offering me an opportunity, one that I never pursued.
You will forever remain one of the best football mentors in our nation.
- Thomas Hukahu is an Australia Awards student in Adelaide, South Australia.