Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Huge Wasted Opportunity for Oceania Football

Whatever the outcome of this week's FIFA Presidential election, the last few months (i.e. the official campaign) represents a huge wasted opportunity for Oceania Football.

As the deadline for nominations approached and there was no sign that anyone from the Oceania region would be nominated, I wrote to a number of the heads of the Oceania member associations (basically all those that were English-speaking and had a working e-mail address on their websites) suggesting a number of reasons why they should consider nominating a presidential candidate, and a listing a swathe of ideas for policies that would be of interest to Oceania and possibly not raised by any of the other candidates during the campaign period.

The following day I received a very positive response from the President of one of these member associations who also noted he would discuss the idea with the other countries' heads.

Around this time the expected candidate list included at least one from each of the other five Confederations: Michel Platini and Jerome Champagne from UEFA, Prince Ali from AFC, Tokyo Sexwale from CAF, David Nakhid from CONCACAF and Zico from CONMEBOL. I felt the OFC were in danger of being left out of the discussion and marginalising themselves.

After two weeks of hearing nothing, I recontacted the same people. Shortly thereafter, I received a brief, unenthusiastic e-mail from the Oceania Secretary-General, pretty much telling me, though in less colourful terms, to STFU.

That it was the Secretary-General who conveyed this news to me was a reminder that the Confederations seem to think they have the power and right to take decisions regarding Congress matters on behalf of their member associations.

As I have stated over and over again, nominating candidates for the Presidential election and voting during the election is the right of the 209 Congess members. Confederations have no nomination or voting rights.

In addition, FIFA Statutes specifically state that member associations are required to conduct their affairs without any interference from third parties. And yet here we are now in a situation where there is a fear that voters will feel compelled to take photos of their ballot papers to prove they voted for the candidate that their Confederations are backing. Third party interference is rife.

But back to Oceania.

In all likelihood, few, if any, of the five presidential candidates will be aware of the numerous ways in which Oceania is a unique Confederation.

1. Oceania is the only Confederation without an automatic men's World Cup Finals spot.

This is a big bone of contention from many within the region. Oceania has eleven members, one more than CONMEBOL which has anywhere from four to six World Cup Finals spots depending on which country is hosting and the results of play-off matches.

Personally, rather than give Oceania an automatic spot, which would benefit a single country (usually New Zealand) for a few weeks once every four years, I would rather see Oceania's World Cup Qualifying combined with Asia's, which could greatly benefit six or seven Oceania countries over a long period every four years.

No doubt, part of the reason for #1 above is:

2. Oceania is the only Confederation without any nation currently sitting in the top 150 of the men's FIFA Rankings. 

Because of the way the FIFA Rankings points are calculated, this means a win against New Zealand is worth the same as a win against Tonga.

A large part of the reason for Oceania countries being so lowly ranked is:
3. Oceania is the only Confederation where almost every year, none of the international teams play the five matches necessary to earn maximum ranking points.

In 2015 none of the OFC nations played five matches that could count towards FIFA Rankings points. Many of them played none. New Zealand only played three away friendlies against Asian opposition.

This is a record even worse than in the five previous years.

2014: 10/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches.
2013: 9/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches
2012: 7/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches (4 teams involved in World Cup Qualifying third phase)
2011: 3/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches (8 teams involved in combined OFC Nations Cup/World Cup Qualifying)
2010: 10/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches.

In addition:
4. Only one OFC nation 'regularly' plays opponents from other Confederations.

The last matches against non-OFC opposition for each OFC nation:

Fiji 2 India 1 (August 14, 2005)

Vanuatu 4 Guam 1 (September 3, 2011 (South Pacific Games)) - before that, never.

New Caledonia 16 St Pierre & Miquelon 1 (September 28, 2012 (French Territories Cup)) - not a FIFA member

Uruguay 8 Tahiti 0 (June 22, 2013 (Confederations Cup)) - before that tournament the last time they played a FIFA member from outside the Pacific was Tahiti 0 Mexico 1 (September 2, 1980).

Papua New Guinea 1 China 1 (September 18, 1985).

Solomon Islands have never played a match against any non-Pacific team. Nor have Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands or Tonga.

#3 and #4 provide ample evidence for why I think OFC members could greatly benefit from the increased number of matches and variety of opponents a combined Asia-Oceania World Cup Qualifying competition would provide.

Another reason for the limited number of matches and opponents is:
5. Oceania is the only Confederation where every member has to fly to every away match.

There are no shared borders in Oceania, and the distances between nations is surprisingly big. The Pacific is truly a vast ocean. Flying from Auckland to Sydney (Australia, now part of the AFC) which many people in the world believe to be a short hop, skip and jump is 2159 km.

For the purposes of comparison:

London to St Petersburg (2114 km)
Baltimore to Havana (1878 km)

Tahiti's closest neighbour is the Cook Islands, a flight of 1142 km.
But to fly to the other French territory in Oceania, New Caledonia, is a flight of 4630 km (plus crossing the dateline).

The lack of population (every other Confederation contains at least one country with a larger population than the combined Oceania population) means there are few flights and those flights are very expensive. Given the limited funds available for football in general, it is no surprise that member associations can't afford to spend a lot on international football. Even getting the team together can be a logistical nightmare with players living on different islands

6. Oceania is the only Confederation without a professional league.

Since Australia left for Asia, the top-rated league in Oceania is the eight-team, fourteen-round New Zealand Football Championship. Like the MLS in the United States and A-League in Australia, it is franchise-based with no promotion or relegation. None of the players are professionals.

This means that the better New Zealand players end up scattered around the world in various leagues (Winston Reid (West Ham), Chris Wood (Leeds), Tommy Smith (Ipswich) and Rory Fallon (Bristol Rovers) in England, Michael Boxall (SuperSport United) in South Africa, Ryan Thomas (PEC Zwolle) in the Netherlands, Stefan Marinovic (Unterhaching) in Germany, Themi Tzimopoulos (PAS Giannina) in Greece, others in the United States, others in the A-League.

Organising matches is therefore extremely difficult and expensive, wherever those matches are played.

7. Oceania is the only Confederation with only one professional team, that is forced to play its domestic football in another Confederation.

Despite Auckland City's heroics in various editions of the Club World Cup, Wellington Phoenix is the only professional team in Oceania. The Phoenix play in Australia's A-League and provide the only way into professional football for anyone living in the Confederation, unless they are willing/able to move elsewhere in the world.

This is why it was so vital that the they retained their A-League franchise licence. The new ten-year licence was announced this past week after much indecision. It was a great day for football in New Zealand.

The Phoenix have also provided the opportunity for players from other OFC nations, such as Fiji's Roy Krishna and Benjamin Totori of the Solomon Islands to experience life in professional football.

8. Oceania is the only Confederation where the winners of every women's international tournament are known before the tournament is played.

Whereas in men's football, New Zealand are only slightly ahead of nations such as New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, in women's football, New Zealand wins every single match against their Oceania opponents at all levels by convincing margins.

In last months' U-17 Qualifying competition in the Cook Islands, New Zealand beat Samoa 11-0, New Caledonia 12-0, Tonga 13-0, Fiji 11-0 and Papua New Guinea in the final by 'only' 8-0.

Five matches played, 55 goals scored, none conceded.

In last years' U-20 Qualifying competition, it was even worse. New Zealand beat Tonga 15-0, New Caledonia 26-0, Vanuatu 18-0 and Samoa 10-0. Four matches played, 69 goals scored, none conceded.

In last month's Olympic qualifiers, Papua New Guinea emerged from the minor nations to contest a two-game play-off against New Zealand. New Zealand won the first game in Port Moresby 7-1, effectively killing the tie. The final nail in the coffin was the failure of the PNG federation to apply for visas for the return match, resulting in New Zealand progressing by walkover.

Without considerable investment in women's football across the Confederation, it is hard to see how any of the other countries can start to challenge New Zealand. As a result, New Zealand's women's team will continue to have to make expensive trips outside the region to be able to play meaningful matches.

#9: Oceania is the only Confederation that could never host the World Cup Finals.

Where would the matches be played? Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin have the stadia for smaller matches, but no other cities in the entire confederation have large enough grounds.

As a result, Oceania will have to be content with holding youth World Cups and the keenly awaited upcoming Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea, while never having the advantage of a bonus entry in the World Cup Finals via the hosting nation.

#10: Oceania is the only Confederation that still has a large number of independent nations that aren't FIFA members.

Can you think of a fully independent nation recognised by the United Nations that isn't a FIFA member? Difficult, isn't it?

And yet there are actually six in Oceania.

In addition to the seven independent nations (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa), two French territories (New Caledonia and Tahiti), one American territory (American Samoa) and one island country in free association with New Zealand (Cook Islands), there are also six nations that aren't members of FIFA (Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

Of these, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Federated States of Micronesia have shown some interest in being more involved in international football competitions. Requests they have made to FIFA in the past for assistance have reportedly fallen on deaf ears.

During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil we were subjected to numerous banners proclaiming FIFA Is For All, If that is true rather than just a clever acronym, FIFA should assist any of these six nations which wish to become members.

Of the five presidential candidates, only Jerome Champagne has noted he would like to ncrease FIFA membership, without mentioning Oceania specifically. However, it is hard to imagine where else he would look.

In Conclusion

Having someone from Oceania in the FIFA Presidential race, even without any expectation of that person winning the election, would have been a great opportunity to raise some of these points, make the other candidates aware of the major issues facing the region and maybe for some potential solutions to be discussed.

Instead, as I feared, Oceania's needs have been forgotten. None of Oceania's unique problems have been addressed.

And for that, sadly, Oceania Football only has itself to blame.

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