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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Wrap-up: Oceania qualification series



    On 31 December 2005, Australia’s membership of the Oceania Football Confederation came to an end. The move to Asia is nothing short of a Godsend and Australian commentators and fans have wanted it to happen for some time.

    But a small part of me will miss this unique confederation. International football has a place for the enthusiastic amateurs that populate the teams from Oceania’s island nations. Occasionally they produce something truly memorable, such as Vanuatu’s win over New Zealand or Solomon Islands’ draw with Australia.

    Oceania’s World Cup qualifiers began in Samoa in May 2004 with Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu drawing 1-1 in front of 500 people. They ended, 18 months later, in a match featuring a double World Cup winner, at the stadium that was at the heart of the 2000 Olympic Games. That match, in front of a capacity crowd, brought two nations to a standstill. It was preceded by an encounter between the same two nations, held in the stadium that hosted the first World Cup Final in 1930.

    In Australia, we won’t easily grow tired of the story of qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals. Nevertheless we had already decided that it was the last time we’d do things this way. Cruising through the South Pacific is not ideal preparation for a meeting with a top football nation where failure over just two matches means another four years in World Cup wilderness.

    But what happens now? Does New Zealand become the team that seems to only exist for a playoff against a team from another confederation once every four years?

    Dominating Oceania has its rewards. Although the confederation doesn’t get a guaranteed spot at the World Cup finals, Oceanic winners can look forward to a pass to everything else: the Confederations Cup, the Olympics, the World Youth Championship finals, the Women’s World Cup finals, etc. Many of the traditionally strong nations rarely see some of these tournaments because qualifying places in their confederations are so limited.

    It has almost always been Australia going to those tournaments. Now it will almost always be New Zealand. But how great are the benefits? Obviously it’s a bonus going to the Women’s World Cup finals because that’s the pinnacle of women’s football.

    However the Confederations Cup’s status remains dubious and, in truth, Australia reaped little from frequent appearances at the finals of the World Youth Championship. At the 1991 tournament, Australia surprised by winning all three of its group games and then reaching a semi-final against Portugal. That was no ordinary match – it was played in Portugal in front of more than 110,000 people and the host nation’s team included Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto. A single goal by Rui Costa settled the match. Two years later, on home soil, Australia again reached the semi-finals before running into Brazil.

    What have we got to show for that generation of young stars? Tony Popovic and Zeljko Kalac were in the 1991 squad and Craig Moore played in 1993. If fit, all are likely to be included in the Socceroos’ squad for Germany next year. But most of the rest of the players in those squads struggled to make the senior team or to hold a place in it. Others (like Kevin Muscat, Paul Okon and Mark Bosnich) did become regular Socceroos but the World Cup finals would elude them. It isn’t their fault that the senior team had such an irregular existence throughout their professional careers.

    Australian football eventually woke up to that being the real problem. You can play in all the youth competitions you like, and you can occasionally find your way to a tournament like the Confederations Cup, but there is no substitute for regular international matches against quality opponents.

    Now Oceania is going with a CONCACAF-style hexagonal for its 2010 World Cup qualifiers. With Australia removed from the picture, the top five teams from the 2006 qualifiers (Solomon Islands, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti and Vanuatu) gain automatic entry to the hexagonal. The final place will go to the winner of a preliminary tournament of Oceania’s other six teams in the Cook Islands in September 2007. The hexagonal will then be played, home and away, from October 2007 to April 2009. The World Cup qualifiers will double as the OFC Nations Cup (or is it the other way around?) with the winner going to both the 2009 Confederations Cup and intercontinental playoffs for World Cup qualification.

    I know I’ve been hypercritical of Oceania’s powers of organisation at times and I’m afraid to say that when I read about these arrangements, I again had my head in my hands. If New Zealand’s football administrators agreed to this, they ought to be locked up. If they didn’t, they should immediately try to follow Australia out of Oceania.

    Irrespective of New Zealand’s flop in the most recent World Cup qualification series, it is a nation that should be aspiring to reach the World Cup finals. Let’s not forget that, before 16 November 2005, New Zealand was the last Oceania team to qualify. But these arrangements will be no help.

    The hexagonal will mean ten matches for each participating team and it will be held over a period that includes just ten international dates on the FIFA calendar. New Zealand should not be spending that entire period playing against teams that, while worthy of respect, simply don’t have the quality of the teams that the Oceanic winner will face in intercontinental playoffs.

    The Kiwis should be able to use some of those dates to play friendlies against tougher opponents. If the Socceroos had not done that in recent times, the team probably wouldn’t have had enough experience together (against better football nations) to eliminate Uruguay.

    I’m not against a home and away series to decide the Oceania winner. But it would be far better to have just four teams (each playing six games) in it. Only the winner of the competition gets any reward so having a group of six also means a truckload of meaningless matches.

    The only good thing to come out of Oceania’s most recent deliberations is that the confederation appears to have conceded that the Nations Cup can only occur once every four years. I hope to soon see the day when every confederation is playing its nations cup once every four years, and the Confederations Cup is also quadrennial (and held 12 months before the World Cup finals).

    Of course, Oceania doesn’t just exist to suit New Zealand so let me unveil the Marcuccitti Plan that should suit everyone.

    September 2007: The bottom four Oceania nations (Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and American Samoa) meet for a round robin tournament (in one country). The top team qualifies for the next stage; the other three are eliminated.

    May/June 2008: The qualifier from the first tournament meets Oceania’s top seven nations (Solomon Islands, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia) in the Oceania Nations Cup finals (again in a single country). There are two groups of four and then semi-finals and a Final to decide the Oceania champion (but it doesn’t decide which team wins Oceania’s World Cup qualification series). The World Cup qualifiers then separate from the OFC championship.

    Late 2008 and early 2009: The top four teams from the Oceania Nations Cup play a home and away series to decide which team reaches intercontinental playoffs for World Cup qualification.

    Such a system would give New Zealand the chance (it should take) to play more friendlies against good teams from other confederations. But it also gives other Oceania teams something to play for. The OFC has four super-minnows (Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and American Samoa). My system gives one the chance to reach the Nations Cup finals. It would also give evenly matched teams (like Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, Vanuatu and New Caledonia) the chance to compete against each other for something a little more meaningful (i.e. reaching that last four). Then who knows what will happen? What is certain is that teams would get to have a crack at New Zealand both in the Nations Cup and the group devoted to World Cup qualifying and some international dates would remain open.

    In CONCACAF the home and away hexagonal makes more sense because there are three to four places at the World Cup finals up for grabs. But in OFC, it’s a stupid idea. There are other pros and cons we could look at but it’s another column. I’m supposed to be reviewing the last Oceania qualification series, not obsessing about the next one.

    Nevertheless, Oceania’s journey in every four-year cycle begins with football politicians and the 2006 qualifiers were no exception. One thing that’s been completely forgotten in Australia’s post-qualification euphoria is the disappearing spot. Remember that? Oceania was awarded a full place at Germany 2006 but after furious politicking from CONMEBOL (which initially dropped from 4.5 spots at the finals to four), the decision was reversed and the Oceania winner was again consigned to a playoff against the team that finished fifth in South America.

    The ridiculous thing about the recent intercontinental playoffs is that, of the four teams involved, the two best played off against each other. Does anyone seriously think that Australia or Uruguay would not have been a clear favourite against Trinidad & Tobago or Bahrain?

    If the playoffs had been arranged differently, it could have been Australia and Uruguay going to Germany (with Trinidad and Tobago missing out). But while Australia explored different (and better) ways to decide the two teams that would qualify (out of the four that went into intercontinental playoffs), the South Americans were having none of it. They were so cocky after they got their half-place back and so quick to fire off statements about how it would guarantee them five teams at the World Cup finals. Uruguay would pay a high price for CONMEBOL’s arrogance.

    That chapter isn’t yet closed. Wait for South America’s next move. CONMEBOL will argue that, for the 2010 World Cup, it should retain 4.5 qualifying places and it should continue to playoff against the Oceania winner (especially as that team will now be New Zealand or a tiny South Pacific nation). You heard it here, folks.

    When Oceania was initially awarded a full place at the 2006 World Cup finals, there was talk of adopting a home and away hexagonal for the qualifiers. The idea was shelved, giving me hope that, after reading my inspirational plan, OFC might again change its mind about adopting it.

    Don’t laugh, because we’re getting more evidence that OFC officials and delegates read Planet World Cup. A year and a half ago, when wrapping up the second phase of Oceania World Cup qualifiers, I wrote the following:

    Organisationally, Oceania continues to have a disturbingly haphazard existence and no one benefits from the confederation continuing down that path … it's time Oceania's soccer politicians got their heads together and came up with a sensible four year plan – something flexible, for sure – with a structure for the Oceania Nations Cup, the World Cup and various other tournaments … come on Oceania, come up with a blueprint for the future. No more deciding that we'll just have a tournament in Apia/Honiara/Adelaide in a few weeks and merge two competitions while we're at it.

    And … Oceania has finally come up with a four-year plan. But had I been consulted, they wouldn’t have to change it. Yes, I’d have been more than happy to have been flown to French Polynesia where OFC made its plans. I could have explained the folly of the home and away hexagonal.

    For the qualifiers for Germany 2006, New Zealand and Australia were seeded through to a hexagonal, but one where each team would play its opponents just once. That tournament would be played in Adelaide, Australia in May/June 2004. The other ten teams in Oceania were split into two groups of five with the top two from each qualifying for Adelaide.

    Group 1 was in the Solomon Islands and the home team topped the group with Tahiti edging New Caledonia out of second place by a single point. At the time, New Caledonia was still not a member of FIFA but it has since been admitted.

    Group 2 was in Samoa. Vanuatu won the group with Fiji second and Papua New Guinea third. PNG blew its chance to qualify for the next phase by conceding a late equaliser to Vanuatu in the competition’s opening match and then conceding another late goal against Fiji when scores had been level. But the big talking point was Natia Natia. Never heard of him? He scored American Samoa’s first World Cup goal and it briefly rattled Vanuatu which had been leading Oceania’s whipping boys 2-0 to that point. This created a few minutes of excitement for me – and the other five people around the world who were following internet updates of the match – before Vanuatu recovered to win 9-1.

    Adelaide then hosted an intense program of football with six teams each playing five matches in just nine days. The top two teams would move on, the other four would be eliminated. The schedule was ridiculously tough and it created difficulties for most of the teams involved. Four days after sensationally defeating New Zealand 4-2, an injury-ravaged Vanuatu lost to Tahiti. Tahiti had been the weakest team in Adelaide but, on the last day, Vanuatu barely had enough fit players to field a team against the Tahitians.

    Injury was a partial excuse for New Zealand as well. With a young team, the All Whites relied heavily on experienced players like Ryan Nelsen, Simon Elliott and Aaran Lines, but all three missed a lot of game time.

    Australia was also plagued by injury and unavailability. And despite the Socceroos greater depth, they too were exposed. Although Australia should not have failed to defeat Solomon Islands, only two of the players that would later start for the Socceroos against Uruguay played in that famous 2-2 draw in Adelaide – Tim Cahill and Brett Emerton.

    With only two teams moving onto the next phase, New Zealand, with three wins and two losses (the other against Australia), were eliminated by Solomon Islands. The Solomons managed three wins, a draw and a loss.

    Ironically, the Solomons’ only loss in Adelaide was to New Zealand. But that match showed signs of what would come – the All Whites really struggled for much of the game.

    Luck did play a part. The Solomons had no real injury problems and were able to keep their best players on the park in all five games. The order of matches also played into their hands as they faced a depleted Australia in the last match and the Socceroos had already qualified for the next phase.

    But we mustn’t detract from the Solomons’ achievement. They played with flare and spirit and deserved their success. The scenes of celebration after they drew with Australia will not be forgotten by anyone lucky enough to see them. It’s extraordinary that, in the same World Cup qualification series, Australia would have a celebration of similar magnitude after playing Uruguay. I have to say it at least once: Only in Oceania.

    Sadly for the Solomons, their story ended with few heroics. Oceania’s qualifiers hibernated from June 2004 until September 2005. Australia and the islanders then played, home and away, for the right to face South America’s fifth team. By that time, events off the pitch increased the gap between the two sides.

    Australia played a good number of matches in those fifteen months. The Solomons, who have limited funds, only played two full internationals in that period – the home and away Final of the OFC Nations Cup against Australia. Both teams also had new coaches. But while Australia gained the polish of Guus Hiddink, the Solomons were unable to keep Alan Gillett who expertly guided them to success in Adelaide. Finally, while Australia could field something close to its best possible team, the islanders luck with the fitness and availability of players didn’t hold. Commins Menapi, who scored the Solomons’ goals in the 2-2 draw with Australia, was suspended for the first match and Batram Suri (the South Pacific Pelé) carried an injury into that game. He wouldn’t make it to half time.

    In the first leg in Sydney, the Socceroos rolled to a 7-0 win. The Solomons should have done better but, in slippery conditions, their goalkeeper had a nightmare match.

    The second leg in tropical Honiara was effectively a dead rubber and the Australians meandered to a 2-1 victory. Still, the two games gave Hiddink a feel for the formation and players that would best serve Australia in the crunch matches against South American opposition. A month later, we’d discover that Australia would play Uruguay in the sudden-death playoff, as it had four years earlier.

    You know the result and you know about the celebration that has followed as the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in 32 years. It’s been described as one of Australia’s greatest moments in sport with some even comparing the achievement to the America’s Cup victory of 1983. That’s going a bit far. In ’83, Australia broke a 132-year winning streak when it wrenched the Cup away from the New York Yacht Club. Although the Socceroos’ achievement is magnificent and has been a long time coming, by qualifying, Australia has done something that 31 other nations have done.

    There is one similarity with the America’s Cup victory – the continuing off field tension between the rival camps and their manoeuvring.

    In 1983, the Americans challenged the legality of Australia’s boat and questioned (and investigated) whether it had been designed by an Australian (one of the rules of the competition); the Australians kept a modesty skirt on the boat while it was docked to keep its innovative keel hidden. Each side cried foul play and meetings between them disintegrated. Throughout the regatta, the rival camps continued to wage an intense public relations war and missed no opportunity to try to out-psych each other.

    After Australia won, by four races to three, the late Warren Jones, Executive Director of Australia’s syndicate, followed Dennis Conner (the captain of the American boat) into the press conference and delivered some memorable lines: “All I can say is ‘Mate!’ That is the very finest Australian saying. And all summer it’s been ‘Check!’ to the New York Yacht Club … to Dennis (Conner), or whatever ... We were playing chess with them. ‘Check, check, check, check.’ And today we say ‘Mate!’ ”

    Uruguay and Australia had their own match of chess: Uruguay changes the kick-off time for the match in Montevideo to force the Australians to stay there overnight while the Uruguayans boarded a charter plane, Uruguay says Check!; Jorge Fossati (Uruguay’s coach) complains about the appointment of a Belgian referee for the match in Sydney and FIFA reverses its decision and appoints a Spaniard, Uruguay says Check!; Australia charters a plane and Uruguay’s falls through, Australia says Check! (Uruguay does, however, succeed in reverting to an earlier kick-off time); Australia qualifies, Checkmate!

    The psychological battle never abated either. It reached its zenith when Alvaro Recoba claimed that Uruguay had a divine right to play at the World Cup finals. (Presumably God was holidaying during qualifying for 1978, ’82, ’94 and ’98.)

    The match in Montevideo was tense; Sydney was an epic. The Uruguayans deserve some credit for that – they hung on in the second leg when they were depleted and exhausted. I know that many fans don’t like seeing matches decided by penalties but it was somehow fitting for this tie. No drama could be spared.

    The Socceroos did have some luck. That’s not to say that they didn’t deserve to qualify, but, for once, the Aussies enjoyed those little breaks of fortune that always seem to go against them. Diego Forlan’s injury was a real blow to the Celeste (and Recoba and Paolo Montero wouldn’t complete the second leg) and they fluffed a couple of big chances to score in Sydney. The most notable miss was, in fact, by Recoba who failed to take a golden chance in the 20th minute with only the goalkeeper to beat. Richard Morales also had some good opportunities to find the back of the net.

    Jorge Fossati erred in keeping Morales on the pitch throughout the 120 minutes. After the long flights from South America to Australia, all in economy class, the tall striker’s spider legs must have been numb by extra time – especially as he’d played most of the match as a lone striker. Surely Fossati could have brought Dario Silva on?

    Guus Hiddink certainly used his players well. Not starting Tim Cahill and Marco Bresciano in Montevideo was a clever move – both would have been suspended for the second match if they got yellow carded and Bresciano was recovering from injury. Both players started in Sydney and were magnificent. Hiddink also successfully played regular full backs, Lucas Neill and Tony Vidmar, as stoppers (with Craig Moore out injured).

    Before the penalty shoot-out, Hiddink apparently told Aussie goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer that the Uruguayans don’t blast their penalties; they hesitate to see where the ‘keeper goes and then hit the ball the other way. Hiddink told Schwarzer to wait before he dived. Who says it’s just a lottery?

    So, after the rollercoaster that saw Oceania given a full place at the finals only for it to be taken away, an Oceanic team still qualified for the World Cup. Despite all the politics, Australia came out ahead with our administrators making the move to Asia and our footballers proving themselves against quality opposition.

    Even though Australia eliminated Uruguay, many observers remain unconvinced about the Socceroos. Just imagine how sceptical they’d be if the team only had to win Oceania to qualify.

    But anyone trying to get an idea of what the Socceroos are capable of needs only to watch Australia’s goal in the first half in Sydney. It was a thing of beauty and it was scored against some of the world’s toughest defenders.

    On Australia’s attacking left, about 15 metres short of the penalty box, Scott Chipperfield throws in. Uruguay has two spare players defending in or near the penalty box. The throw goes to Tim Cahill who is standing near the corner of the box. Cahill chests the ball after it bounces with Diego Lugano stuck to his back like glue.

    Cahill moves back towards the thrower but passes to Harry Kewell who is just inside the touchline and a few metres ahead of where Chipperfield threw from. With his left foot kicking the ball behind his right foot, Kewell sublimely one-touch passes back to Chipperfield.

    Now Chipperfield stabs the ball forward to Cahill again. Cahill beats Lugano’s challenge and turns towards goal. Cahill would see only two team mates ahead of him with four Uruguayans defending. One of the forwards is Mark Viduka and Cahill slides a perfect pass to him as Viduka, who’s on the edge of the penalty area, moves laterally away from goal.

    Kewell has been running towards the penalty box with Carlos Diogo in pursuit. As Viduka sees Kewell’s run, he plays a brilliant back heel (with his first touch) just before Paolo Montero’s challenge dumps Australia’s captain. When Kewell runs past Viduka to receive the back heel, he is suddenly alone and advancing into the penalty area. Dario Rodriguez was standing centrally but now he has to move across to challenge Kewell.

    With the ball bouncing, Kewell appears to miscue just before Dario Rodriguez reaches him. The ball comes to Marco Bresciano who has been lurking near the penalty spot. If Bresciano shoots, it’s going to have to be with his non-preferred left foot.

    Bresciano does shoot, first time, about eight metres from goal. His shot just beats a desperate attempt to block by Guillermo Rodriguez. Uruguay’s keeper Fabian Carini has been advancing to narrow the angle and lowering himself for a shot that could go to his left or right. But Bresciano’s shot goes over Carini, under the crossbar, and thunders into the net.

    The goal still gives me a thrill. As you’d expect, it hasn’t been replayed on Australian television as much as John Aloisi’s winning penalty. No matter. That move is proof of what the Socceroos can do in attack. It was no smash and grab goal from some hopeful ball that fell kindly for a forward, and it didn’t rely on defensive mistakes – the Uruguayans were never going to make many. There may have been a little luck with Kewell’s last touch but the important thing is the way the players crafted a path into the penalty area.

    Marco Bresciano also scored the only goal of the game when Australia played its opening World Cup qualifier against New Zealand in May 2004. On that occasion it was a superbly taken free kick. Behind the goal that night was a green and gold banner with the words “74 DESTINY 06”. Of course, the “74” referred to Australia’s qualification for the last World Cup finals held in Germany. The Destiny 06 slogan would become ubiquitous throughout the campaign and it reflected a belief that the Socceroos’ time had finally come. There hadn’t been a similar catch-cry during the 1998 or 2002 qualifiers. For its part, the team certainly showed greater belief on the pitch. I feel like I say it every four years but the build up to Australia’s decisive qualifiers in November seemed to be longer and more intense than ever before. It also captured more supporters – including people who prefer other sports.

    While Aussies are (rightfully) worshipping Guus Hiddink, the coach he replaced, Frank Farina, deserves a mention. Farina coached Australia in the qualifiers for Korea/Japan and he was still in charge for last year’s Confederations Cup. His tenure included Australia’s opening 2006 World Cup qualifiers in Adelaide.

    Farina had been denigrated since Australia’s loss at the Centenario in 2001 and he had a difficult relationship with media (which peaked when he had an altercation with a television reporter). He deserves some of the blame for that – he would often be curt and prickly during interviews. When I covered the series in Adelaide for PWC, I saw just how grumpy he could be at press conferences; he made no secret of how much he hated criticism. Some fans, disgruntled with Australia’s performances, even started a website called “Sack Frank”.

    I doubt that Australia would have succeeded against Uruguay under Farina (he simply doesn’t have Guus Hiddink’s pedigree) and I also felt he had to be replaced. Nevertheless, he should receive credit for a few things. He gave a lot of the current Socceroos their first opportunities in the national team (and Hiddink didn’t make earth-shattering changes in player selection). And, as someone who played in three World Cup qualification campaigns for Australia, his heart was undoubtedly in the job. Amazingly, Farina is the only Australian-born man ever to coach the Socceroos.

    Farina also had to deal with some of the sport’s most difficult times in Australia. Until 2003, the governing body was unstable and near-bankrupt, broken by years of politicking and mismanagement. Farina didn’t always have the support he needed.

    [For an example, look no further than Australia’s 2002 Oceania Nations Cup debacle. Soccer Australia, as it was then called, didn’t decide that it would enter the tournament until a couple of weeks before it started. None of Australia’s 100+ players in Europe were asked to play, apparently because Soccer Australia couldn’t afford to have them. Frank Farina had to cobble together a team from Australia’s domestic league – which was out of season – in a fortnight. Consequently, Australia narrowly avoided defeat against Tahiti in a semi-final and did lose the Final against New Zealand. This meant that the Socceroos missed out on the 2003 Confederations Cup and Soccer Australia missed a payout of one million US dollars.]

    Publicly, at least, Farina has been fairly gracious since he was replaced and he celebrated the team’s triumph over Uruguay. In June he will be following the Socceroos by leading tour parties of Australian fans in Germany.

    The final word has to be about the intercontinental playoffs as the Oceania winner is destined to continue facing them. It must be obvious that they can be problematic. I’ve mentioned that the 2005 intercontinental playoffs pitted the two better teams (Australia and Uruguay) against each other while the weaker teams (Trinidad & Tobago and Bahrain) played off for the other available place at the finals. If more than two confederations are awarded a half-place for the 2010 finals, that may happen again. There are no criteria for deciding which confederations face each other in these playoffs, it’s a decision made by football politicians.

    The other problems are logistical. The brouhaha over the timing of the Uruguay-Australia match at the Centenario was, in part, a by-product of the need for the players to leave their clubs (which are mostly in Europe) less than a week before the first match in South America, with the second match in Australia just three and a half days after that. When the dispute over the Montevideo kick-off time was thrown back to FIFA, it was clear that there were no rules or regulations to deal with it.

    How these matters are dealt with for 2010 depend on how many confederations (and which confederations) are awarded a half-place. A good solution might be to make each intercontinental playoff a single match in the country that will host the World Cup finals. If four or six confederations are awarded a half-place, decide who plays who with a draw. That may still pit the better teams against each other but at least the decision wouldn’t be subject to political bickering or FIFA Rankings (which are not good at ranking teams from different confederations against each other). Besides, we know how much football officials love it when little balls are pulled out of containers, so why not give them another chance to indulge themselves in their favourite game?

Happy New Year to you.



 

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