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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Death of a confederation

    Within a few years, the Oceania Football Confederation might cease to exist. In fact, I'm willing to predict that it will be wound up by 2010.

    It might not be news outside this region yet but Football Federation Australia (we're not even calling it "soccer" any more) recently announced its intention to defect from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation. And, after a lot of negotiation and diplomacy, the AFC's Executive Committee unanimously accepted the Aussie governing body's application.

    Something close to a revolution has taken place in Australian soccer ... er ... football recently. The sport has undergone a change in structure, direction and administration. So far, it's been all for the better and it has finally brought the Asians to the altar in a marriage of mutual benefit and convenience.

    If it isn't obvious why Australia's move to Asia spells the end of Oceania, it might become more apparent if you know that, since that intention was announced, New Zealand has made noises about following suit. Can you imagine what would happen then? Oceania would be reduced to ten (mostly tiny) nations with teams that just don't have the resources to consistently compete with even middle-ranking teams around the rest of the world. Rather than contemplate a 2009 World Cup qualification play-off between Solomon Islands and Uruguay (just months after Fiji concedes 20 goals in three group matches at the Confederations Cup), Oceania's island nations might instead decide to join the northward migration. With Australia and New Zealand already gone, FIFA might just encourage it too. Oceania would no longer be a confederation in its own right - perhaps it would be a zone of the AFC.

    Don't things change quickly? Less than two years ago, after the decision to give Oceania automatic qualification to the 2006 World Cup finals was reversed, Australian national team coach Frank Farina was all but ridiculed when he suggested that Oceania should be abolished. Now, it looks like reality.

    I know that I might be getting ahead of myself. Australia is not yet an AFC member because (don't laugh) Oceania has to allow Australia to leave. FIFA then has to ratify the decision. But whatever happens over the next few months, the OFC has been dealt a severe blow. In effect, Oceania is being told that it isn't viable as Australia would rather give away OFC domination (which means virtually automatic entry into FIFA youth tournaments, the Women's World Cup, the Olympics, the Confederations Cup, etc) and take its chances against South Korea, Japan, Iran (oooh, can't wait until we play them again), China and co.

    In a previous article, I suggested that the solution to the torturous question of Oceanic entry into the World Cup finals was best resolved by placing the best OFC team (or teams) into the final group stage of the Asian playoffs. While moving to the AFC should facilitate this, there is actually far more at stake. Football in Australia would benefit as the national team would have regular matches against Asian teams in World Cup qualifiers, the Asian Cup, etc. Australian clubs would be playing in the AFC Champions League.

    Benefits such as these actually reduce the importance placed on Australia qualifying for the World Cup finals. Now, don't get me wrong, I still want Australia to reach the finals more than anything. But from a supporter's point of view, and for the sake of the marketing and promotion of the game in this country, regular matches against quality Asian opposition would be a Godsend. I mean no disrespect to our Oceania neighbours - you only have to look at my columns in the Oceania section of this site to know how much attention I've given them - but playing top Asian nations will get people through the turnstiles. Playing OFC teams just doesn't. Australian supporters are more knowledgeable than people outside this country might think they are. Like anyone else, they want quality and they know that, while the top Asian nations might not be Brazil or Germany, they're still going to provide tough opposition.

    This move has been initiated by the new order in Australian football. Over the last couple of years, the sport's governance has had a complete overhaul. It's now chiefly in the hands of Football Federation Australia's chairman Frank Lowy and Chief Executive Officer John O'Neill. These guys deserve a special mention because they have helped modernise the running of the game and the result might be a new, viable national league and a national team with a meaningful existence (rather than one that plays only two big games every four years). Lowy is a self-made shopping centre magnate who was involved in the launching of Australia's first national league in the late 1970s. When the sport needed direction after decades of maladministration, Lowy was its best (and perhaps its only) hope.

    O'Neill is a former CEO of Australian Rugby Union and I greatly admire what he did for that sport. He was very much a rugby man and probably still doesn't understand the difference between using a sweeper and having a flat back four. But he took Australian rugby to a new level. Australia used to be the southern hemisphere's poor relation as passion for rugby was far lower than in South Africa and New Zealand (both nations regarded their rivalry with each other as being greater than their rivalry with Australia). Under O'Neill, Australian Rugby Union became more of a corporate entity; earned far more from sponsorship and broadcasting rights; and attendances, television audiences and (importantly) participation in the sport all skyrocketed. The "Wallabies", Australia's national team, have become increasingly popular with non-traditional rugby supporters. They're more successful too.

    If Australia's move to Asia is ultimately formalised by FIFA, the international football landscape will change. The New Zealanders (which will have a team in Australia's revamped national league when it kicks off later this year) will almost certainly see the benefits of AFC membership and, if they go too, the OFC will eventually die. The only question will be whether it's a slow death or a quick one.

    If you can't understand why the OFC's death would have ramifications around the rest of the football world, just think of the allocation of places at the World Cup finals. The OFC's famous "0.5" allocation would be up for grabs because I doubt it will automatically pass to Asia. And even if the confederation tried to soldier on without Australia and New Zealand, it's hard to see FIFA then continuing to award automatic OFC entry to the Olympics, youth tournaments, etc.

    Now, I do care about the future of Oceania's island nations and I sincerely hope that, whatever happens, they are not disadvantaged. In fact, it's certainly not impossible that Australia's move will ultimately benefit them - and I'd bet that it will eventually be as part of an expanded Asia.

    Of course, the Asia-Australia deal may yet be stymied. But, even irrespective of that, these are exciting times. We still have a new national league to look forward to and a national team playing internationals more regularly. Asia or not, the future should be bright.

All hail the new order down under.



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