Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Qualifying Systems 2006 - Oceania

    Something's up, and it isn't good. First, Asian teams by the handful drop out of the competition. (Puerto Rico from CONCACAF, too.) Now, at the last minute, Oceania has revamped its qualifying system, merging the 2004 Oceania Nations Cup with 2006 World Cup qualifying. The problem, in case you hadn't guessed, is money. With travel and training costs, the lesser countries are getting squeezed, and football's greatest competition is suffering. It looks as if for only the second time since 1950, the World Cup will have fewer competitors than in the previous cycle.

    Do I have the answer to this? No, of course not. (I don't have much money, either.) As a humble football writer, all I can do is analyze the consequences for the confederation qualifying systems. We'll look at the Asian problems in the next article. Today it's Oceania, whose recent change is particularly interesting, involving a number of issues that bear on the nature and quality of the competition.

    Oceania (11 entries, berth) was, of course, the site of the greatest natural disaster in the history of World Cup qualifying. In the 2002 cycle, the OFC opted for two round-robin groups of 5, the winners to play off for the berth. In most confederations, with the 10 best teams reasonably balanced, this would have been a sensible arrangement. But in Oceania 2002 there were only 10 entries total, and with the gap between top and bottom somewhat larger than the Grand Canyon, the result was carnage. In the most famous encounter, Australia (playing at home, no less) whacked American Samoa 31-0, ensuring the Samoans a permanent place in the record book and in the nightmares of football fans around the globe. (Tonga got off easy--they went down only 22-0, and the Samoa result relegated them to a trivia question.)

    It was clear that for the 2006 cycle the confederation would have to come up with something different. They made the obvious move, giving the big two, Australia and New Zealand, first round byes. The remaining ten teams were divided into two groups of 5, double round robin, with the top 2 teams in each group joining Australia and New Zealand in a final round hexagonal. The system was designed to get rid of the superminnows, and ensure that when the big boys finally came to play, the scores could be kept within reasonable bounds. Despite the last-minute change (which we'll get to later), this overall framework was kept in the new system.

    But, you ask, does the hexagonal really solve the problem? Does Oceania have even 4 other teams that can stay on the field with Australia and New Zealand? The answer is yes--sort of. The problem is that even the teams that can put up a fight can also go under by big scores. Fiji, traditionally the third-best team, lost only 0-2 to Australia in the 2002 WCQ; but they lost 0-8 to the same team in the 2002 Nations Cup. Vanuatu, another decent side, lost 0-2 to Australia and 0-3 to New Zealand at the Nations Cup, but 0-7 to New Zealand in the qualifiers. Tahiti actually took Australia to extra time before going down 1-2 in the Nations Cup, but lost 0-5 to New Zealand in the qualifiers.

    And that's only 3 teams, not 4. The fourth team might be Solomon Islands (not Cook Islands, pretty much a superminnow), who have had their moments, such as losing only 0-2 to New Zealand in the 2000 Nations Cup. But they got hammered 1-6 by the same team in the 2002 Nations Cup, and 1-5 in the most recent World Cup qualifiers. Another possibility is rapidly improving New Caledonia--more about them later--but that's about all. Papua New Guinea occasionally pulls off a result (they actually beat New Zealand at home in the 1998 WCQ), but is wildly inconsistent; Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, and American Samoa are cannon fodder.

    So any hexagonal in Oceania is going to be pretty iffy. You could reduce the number of teams in the final group, maybe 4 instead of 6, which would probably ensure closer games. On the down side, it would deprive a few more teams from a shot at Australia and New Zealand. My own sense is that you might as well go with the hexagonal. Oceania is pretty isolated, and AUS and NZL are the only really good teams the island nations ever get to play, so it would be unfair to deny them a chance in the qualifiers. At least any routs will be 8-0 and not 31-0.

    But now we come to the first major change in the qualifying system. Originally, Oceania had set up the hexagonal as a double round robin, with the winner grabbing the berth. As we discussed in the column about Africa (if you can remember that far back), a 6-team double round robin with only one team advancing is a terrible idea, mainly because so many games will be irrelevant to the final result. In Oceania the problem is magnified, because there are only 2 teams with a legitimate shot at the one place. But oddly enough, Oceania might be the one confederation where such a system could be justified. The island nations need as many games as possible to develop their talent, and given the topheavy hierarchy, most of those games will be irrelevant to the final result anyway. So you might as well let them play.

    The real disadvantage in this system was at the top. Remember, the winner of the group, and only the winner, would have advanced. Because Australia and New Zealand are so dominant, the slightest misstep by either team could have cost them the whole show. An unlucky draw at Fiji, and boom, it's over. Worse: since Australia and New Zealand could easily have won all their games against the minnows, the place could have been decided on goal difference, giving them all the incentive in the world to run up the score. So we might very well have seen 10-0, 12-0, 15-0, no matter how hard Vanuatu and Tahiti played.

    The new system changes things around significantly. It's still a hexagonal, but because it's also the 2004 Nations Cup tournament, it will be a single-round event [the press release says "round robin," which I interpret as single-round], held at a single site (almost certainly in Australia or New Zealand), with the top two teams playing off for the spot. The change from double to single round robin means many fewer meaningless games, which is good--but it also means that the minnows won't get a chance to host the Socceroos and Kiwis, and an upset, which would be good for the tournament, is much less likely. The other change, from the top team winning to the top two teams playing off, is monumental. It means all the pressure is off Australia and New Zealand; a draw against Fiji or Vanuatu won't matter. They won't need to run up the score, and that's good, but the competition immediately becomes a foregone conclusion. In a group stage, even a single round robin, there is no way on earth the top two teams will be anyone other than Australia and New Zealand.

    This is particularly unfortunate, given the merging of the Nations Cup and WCQ. In the past, the Nations Cup has been arranged to include semifinals and a Final. The Final always involved the big two, of course, but the semis at least gave the best of the minnows a shot at glory in a winner-take-all match. The Nations Cup semis have produced some close games: that extra time win by Australia over Tahiti in 2002, Australia-Vanuatu 1-0 and New Zealand-Solomons 2-0 in 2000, New Zealand-Fiji 1-0 on an 88th minute goal in 1998. Those are precisely the sort of games Oceania needs, and precisely the sort they won't get now. There will be no semifinals, only a Final, between you-know-who and you-know-who-else, which will pretty much ruin the Nations Cup as a contest. This is all the more true since both Australia and New Zealand will undoubtedly field full-strength teams; in the past, they haven't always done so (particularly Australia), but with a World Cup berth also at stake they won't risk it.

    But now for the real craziness. The Final between the top two teams in the hexagonal will decide the winner of the 2004 Nations Cup. But it won't, repeat won't, decide who gets the berth for Germany 2006. Why not? Well, if it's a single game Final, the home team would have an unfair advantage. You need a two-legged tie to pick the winner. Well, why not have the Nations Cup Final be a two-legged tie? Because that would alter the whole regional championship idea, which is to have the tournament all held in one place with a culminating Final. Imagine if the World Cup just took its two finalists and had them play a two-legged home-and-away final. It would destroy the coherence of the competition.

    So instead of choosing the berth right then, the confederation is going to wait. And wait. And wait some more. And finally, they're going to take the SAME TWO TEAMS, the teams that finished one-two at the Nations Cup, and have them play off A FULL YEAR LATER for the berth. You heard that right. The competition to determine the finalists will take place a full year before the final is actually played. Only in Oceania, right?

    But I suppose it's less crazy there than anywhere else. Let's face it, if the Oceania final is a knockout tie, it's going to be Australia and New Zealand, New Zealand and Australia, no matter what you do. You might as well have them sit around for a year, or two years, or ten if necessary. (It'll drive the coaches batty, though--can you imagine planning a 12-month schedule to prepare for two games?).

    So I suppose we shouldn't complain. But I'll tell you who should: Fiji, Tahiti, Vanuatu, and the Solomons. Because they've been aced out of that Nations Cup semifinal, and they get no compensation whatsoever. Why not use the top 4 from the Nations Cup hexagonal and have true semifinal and final knockout ties in the WCQ? That would be something. Yes, of course, it would still be Auszealand and Newstralia in the finals, but at least the minnows would have a theoretical chance, and the thrill of taking on the big boys at home. Money wouldn't be such a problem in that case. The revised system was designed to cut down on all the traveling involved in a double round robin. But surely two teams can find the money to travel to two games, especially with a year to get ready. Now the little teams are thoroughly disenfranchised. To put it bluntly, this is a stinker.

    There are a couple of additional minor issues involving the Oceania setup. When the initial system was announced, the two 5-team preliminary round groups were drawn, as follows:

     Tahiti                Fiji
     Solomon Islands       Vanuatu
     Papua New Guinea      New Caledonia
     Samoa                 Tonga
     American Samoa        Cook Islands
    But when the system was changed, although they kept the 5-team preliminary round setup, the groups were redrawn, as part of the grand Frankfurt worldwide qualifying draw. Now they look like this:
     Tahiti                Fiji
     Solomon Islands       Vanuatu
     New Caledonia         Papua New Guinea
     Tonga                 Samoa
     Cook Islands          American Samoa
    No real difference, I suppose (although see below), but why redraw at all? So you can take part in the big draw, put Oceania on the world stage, if only for a few minutes? I can't think of any other reason. But more power to Oceania: they've been kicked around so many times by FIFA they ought to get as much air time as possible. Still, I'd give anything to see an official protest from the head coach of Vanuatu (Carlos Buzzetti--but of course you knew that), saying that he had his strategy all set for Cook Islands in the opener, and now has to rethink for the game against American Samoa.

    The second minor issue is particularly interesting. If you were reading carefully, you'll have noted that Oceania has 11 World Cup qualifying entries this time around. And yet, the system calls for two groups of 5 teams, plus Australia and New Zealand--which makes 12. So there's an extra team in there. Who is it? It's New Caledonia, the up-and-comers in the confederation. But how can they be in the tournament if they're not entered for the World Cup?

    The answer: they're not a member of FIFA (although they're hoping to be soon), so they can't qualify for the World Cup, but they're a provisional member of Oceania, which means they have a right to play in Oceania tournaments. Since the Nations Cup and the WCQ are now merged, there's no argument, since New Caledonia clearly has a right to play in the Nations Cup. But if you look back at the original draw, you'll see they were originally scheduled to play in the WCQ even before the merger, even though they weren't eligible to qualify. Now that's an issue worth discussing. Had the old system been in place, and the WCQ been separate from the ONC, should New Caledonia have been allowed to participate?

    On the yes side, there's the fact that they need to develop their talent, and in Oceania that's a real problem. You want to get the teams as many games as possible, and a nice 5-team double-round-robin provides 8 games, 4 of them at home to build a fan base. All well and good. But New Caledonia isn't completely starved for games; they played 6 in the South Pacific Games this past summer, getting all the way to the Final before losing to Fiji. And to include a team ineligible for the tournament title, especially a team that has a legitimate chance of beating some of the other teams in the tournament, seems unfair.

    And how about this: OFC had ruled that if New Caledonia finished in the top two of their preliminary group, they would have advanced to the hexagonal, even though they weren't eligible to qualify for the World Cup. In other words, Fiji and Vanuatu, who had been drawn in New Caledonia's group, were severely disadvantaged. They had one more tough opponent in their group (Tahiti and the Solomons, in the other group, had no such problem), which impeded their way to the final rounds even though that extra team had no business there in the first place. Allow New Caledonia in the competition, maybe, but don't allow them to advance, no matter their results. If they finish in the top two, the third place team should go instead.

    It's academic now, although if I were Tahiti and the Solomons, I'd still be pretty upset, since New Caledonia may very well snatch their spot in the hexagonal, which robs them of their shot at AUS and NZL--not to mention that the initial draw had New Caledonia in the other group. I rarely have a good word for CONCACAF (and just wait until my next column), but they know how to handle this kind of situation. They have several associate members (Martinique, French Guiana, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Guadeloupe) who play in regional tournaments and Gold Cup qualifiers, but not the WCQ. That's the logical way to do it.

    Well, that's show biz. Overall, no black marks for Oceania this year, but a pretty dark gray mark for stiffing the lesser teams in the rearranged competition. Aside from CONCACAF, this year's villains are Asia, who managed to destroy the integrity of their preliminary competition with one ridiculous decision. Of course, you'll have to read another column to find out about it--clever, huh?



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