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