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
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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, ½ 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 ½ 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
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 ½ 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 ½ 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
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 ½ 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 ½ 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 ½ 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:
Solomon Islands Vanuatu
Papua New Guinea New Caledonia
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:
Solomon Islands Vanuatu
New Caledonia Papua New Guinea
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,
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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