For some time now FIFA has preached its mission to take the World Cup to new parts of the world. Gone are the days of the Euro and Latin America-centric tournaments, in favour of a rotation-based agreement. By doing this, FIFA argues that each continent will get equal chances to host the tournament. In 2002, Asia got its chance when Japan and South Korea joint-hosted the event with great success. In 2010, Africa got its long-awaited chance when South Africa was the host. However, there is still one continent, besides Antarctica, that is yet to host the World Cup Finals. That continent is Oceania.
For as long as is conceivable to remember, Oceania has been treated as FIFA’s poor relation. The region has never been able to boast even a single automatic World Cup qualifying spot, and it’s place at the World Club Championship has come under scrutiny in recent years. However, times have changed and Oceania is kicking on regardless of FIFA’s lack of support.
What is Oceania? Well, the most famous member of the confederation is New Zealand. Many Eurosnobs may well be laughing to themselves at this point, but let us remember that the “All Whites”, as the country’s round ball side is known, have twice qualified for football’s gala event. In 1982, a squad of part-timers travelled to Spain to take on Scotland, Brazil and the USSR. In 2010, the country again qualified, this time for South Africa where they even held Italy to a 1-1 draw. They were eliminated in the group stages without ever losing a game. The country has produced players such as ex-Blackburn Rovers and QPR defender, Ryan Nelsen, and former Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen and Norwich City striker, Wynton Rufer.
The other nation to have qualified from the Oceania region is Australia. Until 2006, Australia was part of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and qualified for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany where, again with a team of part-timers, they performed creditably against the hosts, East Germany and Chile. In 2006, they qualified again, this time in a united Germany, having overcome Uruguay in a two-legged play-off. Australia soon departed the OFC for the more lucrative Asian Football Confederation (AFC) after that World Cup, citing the need for better regular competition. Few could argue with that sentiment, especially given the infamous 31-0 drubbing they handed out to American Samoa on 11th April 2001 in a World Cup Qualifier. So now New Zealand share the Oceania pool with the likes of Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tahiti (of Confederations Cup 2013 fame), Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and several other Pacific nations. While the smaller nations are known to pull off the odd shock in qualifying, it is generally accepted that New Zealand represents that region’s best chance of making a World Cup.
Could New Zealand host the World Cup though? Well, this is a grey area. The answer quite simply would likely be no. This nation of 4.5 million is highly developed and has the infrastructure, but not the stadia. It would be able to contribute the likes of North Harbour Stadium (25,000) and Mount Smart Stadium (30,000) in Auckland, Westpac Stadium (34,500) in Wellington, AMI Stadium (38,628) and QEII Stadium (25,000) in Christchurch and Forsyth Barr Stadium (30,748) in Dunedin. This however leaves the country still short of suitable venues and also, much work would have to be done to bring some venues up to scratch. This would especially apply in the case of the recently earthquake-damaged AMI Stadium, which still has a very uncertain future after suffering a large amount of structural damage.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Australia launched a bid for the 2022 World Cup which will controversially be hosted in Qatar. Australia, like New Zealand, undoubtedly has the infrastructure and a number of world class stadia to call on. But would FIFA allow the two countries to joint host the World Cup given they are now in separate confederations? Why not indeed?
Australia and New Zealand are in a slightly unique situation. They may well be in different confederations these days, but they do share a top-flight competition called the Hyundai A-League. The league began play in 2005 and has proved extremely popular with the Australian and New Zealand public. The Auckland-based New Zealand Knights were involved in the league from the outset but poor attendances and a constantly struggling side meant the baton was passed onto Wellington Phoenix in 2007. The Kiwi capital city’s side has proved far more popular and successful, proving there is a market for the live game in New Zealand as well as Australia. Sky (NZ) and FoxSports (Australia) both carry live games and international networks have also picked up the rights to A-League games, as witnessed with BT Sports in the UK.
But it’s not just New Zealand and Australia that would benefit from hosting a World Cup Finals. The rest of Oceania would also benefit from improved funding through the OFC that would subsequently allow better facilities and a better standard of play for the largely part-time or amateur players in the smaller island nations. Coaching programmes could be initiated and sponsorship may follow suit. A very real scenario could also be that some countries would base themselves on the islands for pre-World Cup training camps and friendlies, allowing for the local populations to see top-level football first-hand and to be inspired for the next generation.
Oceania is not a backwater. It has produced the likes of Christian Karembeu (New Caledonia – pictured right)) who went on to declare international allegiance to France and played for Real Madrid, Middlesbrough, Sampdoria, Nantes and Olympiakos. Pascal Vahirua was a winger who won 22 caps for France but hailed from Tahiti and played for Auxerre and Caen. Tim Cahill played for Samoa at youth level before switching allegiances to Australia. The talent is there and needs FIFA’s help to showcase and inspire it. Indeed, Christian Karembeu is currently part of a consortium that is trying to bring a Hyundai A-League franchise to the Polynesian islands. Perhaps a World Cup in Oceania would further boost the chances of this happening and allowing Polynesian players a professional environment?
So, if FIFA is serious about bringing the World Cup to each corner of our planet, then Oceania should surely be next to be given the right to host it. Over to you FIFA…
Editor’s Note: For more information about football in the Pacific, catch Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s brilliant documentary entitled “Next Goal Wins”.