Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The wrong question

    This website has been asking whether or not Oceania deserves a guaranteed spot in the World Cup. The poll has been neck and neck and that doesn't surprise me seeing as there are plenty of good reasons why at least one Oceania team should be at the finals and just as many reasons why an automatic place for our much-maligned confederation is a bad idea. FIFA was obviously troubled by the debate as well seeing as it initially awarded Oceania a full place at Germany 2006 only to withdraw it months later.

    I've held my fire over this issue thus far. Overall, I'd probably prefer that Oceania did get a spot but you'd expect that from an Australian. I can, however, see the drawbacks.

    What I'd rather promote, is a debate not about whether Oceania gets a spot but how the best Oceanic team (or teams) gets treated through the qualification process.

    Before I warm to that subject, I'll put some perspectives on what I regard as the wrong question: Does Oceania deserve a guaranteed spot?

    On the "Yes" side is the fact that Oceania represents a corner of the globe and a "World Cup" should include representation from each corner of the globe (FIFA's own rhetoric has been consistent with arguments of that nature for years). In fact, a few years ago, Oceania was given "full confederation status". Now, call me stupid, but I still don't exactly know what "full confederation status" actually means or what it entitles you to. (One thing's for certain, your entitlements as a "full confederation" don't necessarily extend to a place at the World Cup finals.)

    Then there's the "development" argument. Other confederations have been (or are) over represented at the finals, supposedly, to give their teams the chance to improve at the highest level. In 1998 CONCACAF's allocation of three places was a touch farcical given how unlikely two of its teams (Jamaica and the USA) were to progress beyond the group stage. At Korea/Japan, CONCACAF did so well that its allocation increased for 2006. What about Africa? It raced from two places to five in no time at all and that's despite the fact that Africa has never had more than one team advance past the group stage at a World Cup tournament. Asia? Its four teams at the 1998 finals finished with a combined record of 1 win (over the USA), 2 draws and 9 losses (a statistic I have to temper with the fact that one of those Asian teams knocked Australia out in qualifying for that tournament). And while South Korea and Japan performed brilliantly on home soil in 2002, China and Saudi Arabia were almost embarrassing. [Fiji might have done better!]

    So there's a performance argument as well. The World Cup finals have not seen a team from Oceania since 1982 so we can't compare ourselves on that front. But Australia, at least, has had excellent results in both friendlies and the Confederations Cup. Not only have the Socceroos beaten Mexico (twice) and Uruguay at the Confederations Cup but France and Brazil as well. The tournament may be considered a bit of a joke to many football fans but, nonetheless, the only other victories by teams from the "lesser" confederations over top European/South American opposition have been: USA over Germany in 1999, Mexico (at home) over Brazil in the 1999 Final and Cameroon over Brazil last year.

    Ironically enough, New Zealand's poor performance at last year's Confederations Cup was used as one of the excuses for FIFA's decision to return the extra half a qualifying place it had originally awarded to Oceania back to South America. [Hilariously, FIFA's other excuse was the turmoil/chaos within the ranks of Australian soccer's governing body. Presumably South America is a bastion of good administration, free from politicking, corruption and in-fighting.]

    Now you might say "but you haven't qualified for the World Cup finals since..." and you'd have a point. But since New Zealand qualified in 1982, the Oceanic winner has had to face a sudden death play-off against a team from Europe or South America in every cycle except France '98. And politics has played its part in keeping things that way. Note that as soon as Oceania went back to half a place and CONMEBOL went back up to four and a half, Asia and CONCACAF insisted that they still play-off against each other and not against either Oceania or CONMEBOL.

    Why would they do a thing like that? Surely Asia, with its proximity to Oceania, could see the sense in playing off against its neighbour? Surely it makes more sense that the teams from the Americas played off against each other? But no, the Asians are scared of us (and, no doubt, even more scared of the South Americans). They haven't forgotten the Iranians' Houdini act saving them after being slaughtered by the Socceroos in 1997 and they won't risk it happening again. Playing off against Jamaica (beaten by Australia last year) or Honduras gives them a better chance of getting a 5th team (an extra embarrassment) to Germany 2006.

    Hmmm, I'm starting to think I've built a reasonable case for direct qualification for Oceania. So perhaps its time for the down side.

    Well for starters, it'll be way too easy for the Aussies, won't it? Call that arrogance if you like but it's a fact. In the last three qualifying cycles, the Oceanic winner has been decided by a home and away play-off between the top two teams. You'll be amazed to learn that on each occasion, the top two were Australia and New Zealand. Australia won every time and the aggregate scores were: 4-0 in 1993, 5-0 in 1997 and 6-1 in 2001. OK, so the Kiwis have beaten us in a couple of Oceania Nations Cups in recent times but we didn't field anything like our best team in those tournaments. And yes, that was a mistake but it doesn't change the fact that our best team is way ahead of anything else in the region.

    I used to point at how easy the Mexicans had it in CONCACAF because their pass to the World Cup finals was nearly as guaranteed as Australia's would be if Oceania had a full place at the finals. In recent years, other CONCACAF nations have improved (most notably, of course, USA) but you'd still expect that Mexico will make it more often than not. You should have to earn your place at the finals and I'm not sure that knocking over a handful of small rugby playing countries is really earning anything.

    And would it really do us that much good? Going to the World Cup finals when our only competitive matches have been against New Zealand, Fiji and co? The experience of playing at the World Cup finals might be invaluable but our build up to them would consist entirely of friendlies. Every other confederation offers better competition - the chance to play qualifiers of higher quality. Getting through tough qualifiers is good preparation for the finals but you won't get many in this part of the world.

    Finally, if we did make it to the finals as a result of a guaranteed place for Oceania, we'd really be under the microscope. Given the nature of the Oceania debate in recent years, higher standards will apply to Australia (OK, or New Zealand). A woeful three matches, or even a narrow failure to reach the Second Round, will no doubt see Africa/CONCACAF/Asia jumping up and down and asking what the point of all that was (while they ignore how badly their lesser teams perform). Then the automatic place for Oceania might get taken away and the debate will never end.

    It might surprise people around the world to learn that many Australian soccer fans don't themselves believe that Oceania should have a full qualifying place for the finals - for the reasons I've just described.

    Now, what do we do about Oceania? What's the answer to the question of how the Oceania winner gets treated?

    My main concern ties in with what I've described as one of the drawbacks of automatic qualification for our maligned confederation - the lack of a good build-up through qualifying.

    Once upon a time, the leading Oceania team (or teams) played off in combined Asia/Oceania groups for World Cup qualification (this was before we were so fortunately granted "full confederation status"). In fact, it happened in three consecutive World Cup Cycles ('74, '78 and '82). And, would you believe it? In two of those three series, an Oceanic team qualified - and played some half-decent matches in the process.

    This is really all I'd ask for now. Put the best Oceania team in one of Asia's final groups. If we're good enough to make it from there, our preparation for the finals would be better and you couldn't really say that we didn't deserve it.

    Because here's the real problem with existing arrangements: the winner of Oceania is denied a right that teams from every other confederation have and that's the ability to qualify directly for the World Cup finals by winning (or finishing high up in) a group with a league system. When Iran played off for a finals place against Republic of Ireland in 2001, it was because neither was able to WIN its qualification group. When Australia played Uruguay in that year, Uruguay had finished 5th in CONMEBOL. The South Americans could have qualified directly if they'd done well enough in their group. Australia, however, can't avoid a sudden-death play-off. (And think, who would have been better prepared? The team that had 18 tough qualifiers against quality opposition or the team that beat up a few small islands?)

Now, repeat after me:

    The unfairness does not lie in the fact that Oceania does not have an automatic spot in the finals. What's unfair is that the Oceania winner's fate is always decided in a sudden-death play-off against a team that could have qualified through a group and had better quality qualifiers to prepare for the two play-off matches.

    A sudden-death play-off means that all your good work can be undone in 5 minutes - as happened to Australia in 1997. At least in a league system, even one where only the winner advances, there is usually some chance for redress. If Australia was told tomorrow that it had to qualify through any confederation (even Europe or CONMEBOL) you wouldn't hear any complaints from me IF we got to go through the group phase in the same way that all the teams in those confederations do. (Though please, someone tell CONMEBOL to go with two qualifying groups, not one.)

    Of course, it would make most sense for Australia or New Zealand (hey, why not both?) to go through the final groups of Asia. But at present, the Asians don't want us. This is despite the fact that with our half a place and their four and a half places, we would have a fair chance of being granted a combined five places at the finals if we presented FIFA with decisive qualification groups which included the best eight to ten Asian teams and the best team (or best two teams) from Oceania. It isn't going to happen in the 2006 cycle and if South America knocks us off again and if Asia loses its play-off with CONCACAF, guess what? We end up with four places between us.

    The challenge for Oceania is to now build (or rebuild) a relationship with Asia so that this sort of plan might be more than the want of an obscure columnist. Along with that, Oceania must start persuading FIFA that our route to the finals is the problem - not whether or not we get a full place there.

    So please, Herr Blatter and friends, don't give us an automatic spot, just a fair crack at qualification. Is that too much to ask?



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