Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Asia/Oceania World Cup Qualifying

I've been thinking about the possibility of recombining Asia and Oceania World Cup Qualifying for a while and I believe it makes sense for both confederations. The confederations themselves are believed to be actively discussing the issue.

It isn't so long ago that the countries from these two confederations regularly faced each other as part of the qualifying process. I clearly recall New Zealand's matches not just against China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the final 1982 qualifying round, but also against Indonesia and Chinese Taipei in the first qualifying round.

This is no longer the case. The 2014 play-offs saw Jordan, from Asia, lose heavily to Uruguay, from South America, while Oceania's New Zealand were convincingly defeated by CONCACAF's Mexico. To be honest, I feel that the only way a team from Asia or Oceania will make it through the intercontinental play-offs in future is if they are drawn against each other, as happened in 2010 when New Zealand beat Bahrain 1-0 over two legs.

Some would say we should have the best teams at the World Cup Finals so it is better to have both Mexico and Uruguay there. While I see this argument, the World Cup Finals are also a worldwide celebration of the planet's culture, and the fact that we already have qualifying based on confederations shows that we recognise that we want the finals to be a truly global event.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who would argue that Oceania should always have one team in the Finals. I see their argument, too, but realistically, now that Australia has joined the Asian Football Confederation, that would pretty much guarantee New Zealand a spot in every Finals..Don't use Tahiti's qualification for the Confederations Cup as a counterargument. That only came about through a perfect storm of circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated.

My current favourite format for a combined Asia/Oceania Zone is as follows:

Phase 1 57 nations

OCEANIA (11 members)

Nation with highest ranking receives bye into Phase 2
Remaining ten nations play round-robin in two groups of five (could be part of South Pacific Games)
Top two from each group progress to semi-finals or final group
Top three qualify for Phase 2

ASIA (46 members)

16 nations with highest ranking receive bye into Phase 2
Remaining 30 nations play round-robin in either ten groups of three or five groups of six
Ten of these 30 nations qualify for Phase 2

Phase 2 30 nations as follows:
1 Highest ranked Oceania nation
3 Qualifiers from Oceania Phase 1
16 Highest ranked Asian nations
10 Qualifiers from Asian Phase 1

Round-robin played in five groups of six

Top two from each group progress to Phase 3

Phase 3 10 nations (winners and runners-up from Phase 2 groups)

Round-robin played in two groups of five
Winners and runners-up in each group qualify for World Cup Finals
Third-placed teams play each other home and away to decide fifth qualifier for World Cup Finals

Of course there are other configurations that could be used but I like the overall concept. It would guarantee four of the Oceania teams a vastly increased number of meaningful games against better opposition. Currently they are reduced to playing each other in a competition that often starts as the South Pacific Games, then evolves into the Oceania Nations Cup, and finally ends up as the World Cup Qualifying competition.

For the most part the Oceania nations never play any countries from outside their own confederation, other than New Zealand, and even then we are only talking about a handful of meaningless friendlies and the occasional Confederations Cup. This makes it extremely difficult for them to come out on top in a two-legged play-off against a team that might have played eighteen highly competitive matches in their own qualifying competition.

It would also increase by one (from 25 to 26) the number of Asian teams that make it through to Phase 2.

Cost may be an issue, of course, but perhaps TV money could help offset this.