Tuesday, February 10, 2015

An Update on my Proposed Combined Asia/Oceania World Cup Qualifying Format

One of the reasons that the David Chung-led OFC continues to support Sepp Blatter is because they appear to think he will support them in gaining an automatic OFC place in the World Cup Finals. I happen to believe that President Blatter won't actually do anything concrete to make this happen, particularly as a fifth term in office would surely be his last (wouldn't it?) and he would no longer be in need of any votes, but more importantly, I think that the OFC nations are misguided in believing that this is what they actually want.

Let's think this through.

Currently, the four lowest-ranked OFC teams play a small round robin tournament in the first round of OFC Qualifying. The winners progress to the next round, along with the remaining seven OFC members. In the last edition, this doubled as the Oceania Nations Cup where some of the teams played a frankly ludicrous five matches in nine days in the excessive heat and humidity of Honiara.

The top four teams progressed not only to the Nations Cup semi-finals, the tournament eventually being won by Tahiti, but also to the third round of World Cup Qualifying. A six match home and away mini-league was played, in which New Zealand comfortably came out on top, only to lose to Mexico in the Intercontinental play-offs.

So the upshot was:

i) three minnow teams played three matches against fellow minnows (Tonga, American Samoa and Cook Islands) and then had no other matches to look forward to in the next four years except the South Pacific Games.

ii) one minnow team (Samoa) played three matches against the above three minnow teams, and then three matches against stronger opponents (Tahiti, New Caledonia, Vanuatu) and were then eliminated, and then had no other matches to look forward to in the next four years except the South Pacific Games.

iii) three medium strength teams (Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea) played three matches against teams varying in strength from Samoa to New Zealand and Tahiti, were eliminated, and then had no other matches to look forward to in the next four years except the South Pacific Games.

iv) the four strongest teams (New Zealand, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Tahiti) played three matches against teams varying in strength from Samoa to New Zealand and Tahiti, progressed to the semi-finals assuring them of two more matches in the Nations Cup plus six matches in the third round of World Cup Qualifying. Tahiti also went to the Confederations Cup, and New Zealand were soundly beaten by Mexico over two legs in the intercontinental play-off. And then, the South Pacific Games for three of these, and for New Zealand.... nothing meaningful.

Giving an automatic World Cup Finals spot to Oceania wouldn't change much. It would result in two fewer intercontinental play-off games and a guaranteed three World Cup Finals for one team, so potentially in total one more match but also potentially two fewer matches.

Such a format would do little to improve the outcomes for any of the Oceania nations.

It is also extremely hard to justify what would in effect be an automatic spot for New Zealand, a team usually ranked outside the top 100 (I know Tahiti won the last Oceania Nations Cup but I would argue that was the result of a perfect storm of circumstances all coming together at once).

Why not combine OFC qualifying with AFC qualifying? I believe it would be a win-win for both confederations.

My current favourite format is as follows:

Phase 1: 57 nations

OCEANIA (11 members)

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

ASIA (46 members)

14 nations with highest ranking receive bye into Phase 2
Remaining 32 nations play round-robin in eight groups of four teams
Top two from each group qualify for Phase 2

Phase 2: 36 nations as follows:

1 Highest ranked Oceania nation
5 Qualifiers from Oceania Phase 1
14 Highest ranked Asian nations
16 Qualifiers from Asian Phase 1

Round-robin played in six groups of six teams
Each group includes five AFC teams and 1 OFC team
Top two from each group progress to Phase 3

Phase 3: 12 nations (winners and runners-up from Phase 2 groups)

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

Imagine if this format were used for World Cup Qualifying. Now in addition to all the preliminary games against their Oceania brethren, which would in effect act as warm-up matches, six Oceania nations would play a minimum of ten matches against quality Asian opposition, greatly enhancing their prospects to gain invaluable experience and play meaningful matches against stronger teams than they are used to.

Let's just recall that it is very common for the Oceania nations to not even play the five international matches a year that are the minimum to maximise any FIFA Rankings points won. Oceania stands out from all the other Confederations in this regard.

If they are good enough to progress to Phase 3, they would enjoy another ten matches against strong opposition.

Sure, for one Oceania nation, the chance of qualifying for the World Cup Finals would be diminished, albeit not greatly, given the current play-off system that could see them playing CONMEBOL, CONCACAF or strong AFC opposition, but for six teams this format would be hugely beneficial from a development perspective, and presumably would also provide opportunities for vastly improved broadcasting revenues.

Here's the table of the data for the last five years.





This shows that in four of the last five calendar years, the vast majority of Oceania nations haven't even played five meaningful matches. No other Confederation comes close to matching these depressing numbers.

The combined AFC-OFC format would be a win for Asia too, because currently in reality only four of the 4.5 places available to AFC teams are filled, but this system would usually allow five AFC teams to qualify.

I should note that I would only use this combined system for the men's World Cup. Women's tournaments, age-group tournaments, Beach and Futsal World Cups and the Club World Cup would continue to be run as they currently are, with separate qualifying competitions for AFC and OFC.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the costs of sending all these teams across such a large area would be horrendous, and secondly, I believe the OFC has won its Finals spot on merit in all of these other tournaments.

On the subject of costs, there would be additional travel expenses for teams that reach the second phase. Asia is already the biggest area geographically, and adding a potential trip to Tahiti from Lebanon or Jordan would make it even bigger. I envisage that development or other money could go towards defraying some of these costs, and in addition, as already alluded to, increased broadcasting revenues may also help defray some of these additional expenses for at least the Oceania nations involved. Indeed every FIFA member just received $300,000 officially to help defray the costs of competing in FIFA national team tournaments, so there is obviously plenty of money available.

I did a test draw to see how the groupings may look in Phase 2 using this format. I like what I see.


Teams are listed in the order of the Pots they would have been placed in, based on FIFA Rankings. For this draw New Zealand was placed in Pot 4, New Caledonia in Pot 5 and the remaining four Oceania nations in Pot 6.

This entire idea isn't actually that radical. I clearly remember the 1982 World Cup Qualifying format which saw New Zealand qualify after first winning the Oceania Group (which included not only Australia and Fiji but also Indonesia and Chinese Taipei) and then playing China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the final round, eventually qualifying after a one-off play-off against China played in Singapore after the two teams had finished second equal in the group.

Thinking back to 1974, Australia qualified after seeing off New Zealand, Indonesia and Iraq in Subgroup D and then Iran and finally South Korea in the later rounds.

The Asia-Oceania concept officially ended in 1986, although the Oceania group actually consisted of two Asian, but unwelcome in Asia, nations (Israel and Chinese Taipei) in addition to Australia and New Zealand.


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