Friday, March 31, 2017

The expanded World Cup – what’s in it for Oceania?

News that the Bureau of the FIFA Council had agreed on a proposed slot allocation for the 2026 World Cup Finals that would mean an automatic Oceania slot, was generally met with great excitement by my fellow New Zealanders, with very few notes of caution among the comments I read on social media.

A few people noted that qualifying for the World Cup Finals isn't the same when it's virtually handed to you on a plate. The excitement and twists of turns of the epic fifteen-match marathon in 1981 resulted in a whole new segment of New Zealand football fans. Likewise, most of the country would remember Rory Fallon's headed winner and Mark Paston's penalty save against Bahrain at the Cake Tin in 2009.

To be honest, from a purely footballing perspective based on the playing of important international matches, I fear that the outcome will be worse for Oceania than the status quo.

Currently, the Oceania World Cup Qualifying process is split into a number of different phases:

1. The four weakest nations (American Samoa, Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga) play a round robin tournament in a single location, with the winners advancing to Phase 2 and the losers eliminated.
2. The OFC Nations Cup. The Phase 1 winners (Samoa have always won this mini tournament to date) are joined by the remaining seven nations (New Zealand, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu). The teams are divided into two groups of four. The top three teams in each group progress to Phase 3 of World Cup Qualifying. The top two in each group progress to the semi-finals of the Oceania Nations Cup with the eventual tournament winners qualifying for the Confederations Cup. (New Zealand defeated Papua New Guinea on penalties in the 2016 Final.)
3. The six remaining nations (Samoa and Vanuatu were the two to miss out this time around) are divided into two groups of three, playing home and away matches against each other. The group winners progress to Phase 4. The remaining four teams are eliminated.
4.  The Phase 3 group winners play each other over two legs. (New Zealand have already won Group A. The Group B winners are yet to be determined). The winners advance to Phase 5. The losers are eliminated.
5.  The Phase 4 winners play against a team from another Confederation over two legs. The winners qualify for the World Cup Finals. The losers are eliminated.

Assuming New Zealand are the eventual winners of Phase 4, they will move on to meet the fifth best team from CONMEBOL. That could be any one of a number of teams, including, but not limited to, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru. Matches against any of their prospective opponents would be hugely attractive and would guarantee a sold out stadium for the home leg. In all likelihood, this would also be the end of New Zealand’s attempt to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia.

So at the end of the qualification attempt, New Zealand would have played:

3 OFC Nations Cup group matches that double as World Cup Qualifiers versus Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. The official attendances for these matches played in Port Moresby were 378, 520 and 1925 respectively.

The OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final versus New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea respectively. The attendances for these matches were 1379 and then 13,000 for the final against the hosts. Technically neither of these were World Cup Qualifying matches.

4 Phase 3 matches home and away against New Caledonia and then away and home against Fiji. The attendances for these matches were 8131, 2000, 7000 and 10,133.

2 Phase 4 matches, home and away against the yet to be determined Group B winners which could be any of Tahiti, Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.

2 Inter-Confederation play-off matches, home and away against the yet to be determined fifth place CONMEBOL nation.

So that’s a total of eleven World Cup Qualifying matches, three of which also counted as OFC Nations Cup group stage matches), plus the OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final.

Only two of these matches will have been against higher ranked opposition.

So far, the combined attendance of the seven World Cup matches played is approximately 30,087, plus another 14,379 for the OFC Nations Cup semi-final and final. That's a grand total of 44,466. There's a good chance that the away leg of the Inter-Confederation phase will attract more spectators than all nine matches New Zealand have currently played combined.

Should New Zealand somehow manage to prevail against their South American opponents, they would be guaranteed at least three more high level matches against strong opposition in the group stage of the 2018 World Cup.

What would change if the 2026 format were used today?

Presumably phases 1-4 would remain the same, to determine the Oceania winners and runners-up.

The winners would now no longer play Inter-Confederation play-off matches. Previously the opponents have been Bahrain and Mexico, and this November it will be a high quality South American team. So that's two matches lost against very good opponents, with one of them played at home probably in front of a sold out stadium, and one away in what would also likely be a sold out stadium.

However, the Oceania automatic qualifiers would be guaranteed two Group Stage matches at the expanded Finals. So they could face Brazil or Spain or Argentina or England in one of them. Or they could face Bulgaria and El Salvador, or Latvia and Burkina Faso.

Should they avoid coming last in their group, they would then advance to the knock-out phase, beginning with a match in the Round of 32, Presumably they wouldn't last much longer.

The Oceania runners-up, meanwhile, would advance to a six-team play-off held in the host nation probably in November 2025. Almost certainly the Oceania nation would be the lowest ranked of the six competing teams, meaning they would have to beat one of the other lower ranked teams for the chance to play against one of the two higher ranked teams for the right to qualify for the Finals. It's difficult to see an Oceania nation ever qualifying for the Finals using this method. In all likelihood, they would lose their first game and return home.

Neither of the top two OFC nations would play inter-Confederation play-offs on home soil, either, further reducing the likelihood that the All Whites will ever play in front of a capacity home crowd again.

What's worse is the very real possibility that the new six-team qualifying tournament will be used by the hosts as their practice run for hosting the actual Finals tournament, resulting in the scrapping of the Confederations Cup. Should this happen, the winners of the OFC Nations Cup will lose the three high quality matches they have come to rely on and look forward to every four years.

So whereas now the top OFC nation in all likelihood plays 16 competition matches every four years, under the new format that might well be reduced to 13. The second best OFC team would most likely increase its competition match tally from 11 to 12.

So much for expanding the game and increasing excitement, Mr Infantino. If anything, from a purely footballing perspective, the new format is a step backwards for Oceania nations.