The FIFA World Cup is the single biggest football tournament around the world. It is estimated that the 2018 final between Croatia and France drew in over 1.1 billion viewers, while the 2022 World Cup journey began with 206 nations competing. With such a large number of teams entering this process, and so much emphasis on it being the WORLD Cup, there has been a rather large omission since the tournaments debut in 1930. Over the past 21 tournaments, only two nations from the Oceanic region have qualified, Australia (who now compete in the Asian federation) and New Zealand, who have both qualified twice out of this region.
It is no surprise that the weighting of this oh-so-famous competition has been… not exactly geographically fair, over the years. Europe currently gets a whopping 13/32 spaces, while South America gets four guaranteed spots (out of 10 competing nations). Admittedly, both of these regions have produced a multitude of victors, although this is misleading in itself. The deck was stacked.
For long enough Asia and Africa were lumped together, with one spot being allocated between the two confederations. Things are improving for these regions, slowly but surely, and North America too is gaining more of a foothold in the big-boys club of world football. The disparity between Europe/South America and the aforementioned is still not great, but chances are afforded to these regions.
The Oceanic continent has been maltreated by FIFA for years, seemingly thought of as nothing short of an afterthought, an inconvenience, even. Sure, it is hard to see Vanuatu or Papua New Guinea rubbing shoulders with Brazil or Germany at the finals, but it feels like less and less opportunities are afforded to these island nations to fight for their place. Australia managed to escape this gruelling regime, whereby they would often walk their conference with ease before being knocked out via an intercontinental playoff. It was thought that New Zealand would fill the void left by the Socceroos, especially after they defied the odds to qualify for World Cup 2010 – a tournament that they excelled at by their standards, but they have flattered to deceive since then.
Part of the issue is that these Oceanic sides simply aren’t afforded the opportunity to play games against higher calibre sides. In fact, some sides are barely afforded the opportunity to play at all. Maro Bonsu-Maro, the Ghanian-born striker who plays for the Cook Islands, spoke to Heart of Football about his thoughts on the lack of games for his side.
The Cook Islands haven’t played an official game since their last World Cup qualification campaign, in 2015. How hard is it to compete when you don’t have as many games as other international sides?
It will be tough – seeing as we are an unranked team especially, but we are excited to challenge the teams that we will face.
A further issue which can have an adverse impact on these Oceanic teams is the lack of exposure to playing global football. This goes beyond the playing of international friendlies, but rather players plying their trade abroad. While New Zealand has a number of players playing around the world, such as striker Chris Wood in the English Premier League, many of these island nations don’t have that same claim. A few make it as far as Australia and New Zealand to play, but very few make it to Asia, North and South America or Europe. One exception is Papua New Guinea defender Alwin Komolong.
I spoke to Alwin about his experience playing in America and Germany
You’re one of a handful of players at this tournament who have played outside of Oceania. Do you think this has helped you develop as a player, and can this experience help your teammates in this competition?
For sure. I’ve been lucky to play outside and experience football in different countries. Playing in Germany at a high level was a big step and I’ve taken many lessons from that which I believe can have a positive impact on the team.
Do you think PNG are good enough to go all the way? Can we see this nation line up in the World Cup in 2022?
There’s only one answer!! Yes, we have a good group, of course the World Cup is another level and I’m sure if we did go all the way the selection pool would open a lot of opportunities.
What does the 2022 qualifying campaign look like for Oceania? While the rest of the world were able to struggle through the Covid nightmare which has plagued the world in recent years, the Oceanic region was unable to combat this. Player welfare, funding issues and long and stringent quarantine rules have meant that the usual home and away process was unable to take place. In its place is a one-off tournament of the eight top-ranked teams in the region doing battle in Doha, Qatar. This will consist of two groups of four, filtering into a knockout format before the winner is crowned and given a place in the intercontinental playoff.
I spoke to Tahiti forward Tutehau Tufariua about this qualification tournament.
What are your thoughts on the qualifying tournament? Does it feel a little more special than the traditional qualification process, or does it make things difficult somehow?
This is the first time that this will take place in the form of a tournament, and I think it is a good thing to have made sure to play this tournament in the same country. It is already a bit like our World Cup to us Oceanians, and we can’t wait to be there.
What are your thoughts on Qatar hosting this tournament, rather than an Oceanic nation?
It is a chance for each of us Oceanian footballers to play this qualifying tournament in the host country of the 2022 World Cup.
Since 2010, the good times have been few and far between in Oceania. There seems to be a real inconsistency in terms of their intercontinental playoff system. In 2014 they were drawn against the 4th best CONCACAF side. In 2018 it was the 5th best CONMEBOL nation, and 2022 will see them facing the 4th best CONCACAF side once again. This lack of Oceanic World Cup representation feels like a real strike against such an eponymously named WORLD Cup and I wanted to take this issue up with those that care most passionately about this matter.
I spoke to Ola Bjerkevoll, creator of the website Football in Oceania.
Tell me about how you came to follow Oceanic Football.
I’ve always loved a good underdog story. It started with Australia at the 2006 World Cup. I was impressed by their performance and when New Zealand qualified for the 2010 WC their fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude made me fall in love with them.
How did your website, Football in Oceania, come about?
I kept tabs on the Oceania region for some years following the 2010 World Cup and when I started university I wanted something to do alongside taking my Bachelor in Sports Journalism. I realised there was a gap in the coverage of football in Oceania and thought to myself “why can’t I be the one to plug it?”
Do you think FIFA treat Oceania with respect?
That’s a tough question. I think FIFA treat Oceania fairly in terms of giving grants and funding for projects etc. As for on the pitch I think the fact that Oceania haven’t had a guaranteed spot at the World Cup has been very disrespectful, although that will change for 2026 when Oceania will get one direct qualification spot and one place in the intercontinental playoffs
Was Australia leaving the Oceanic qualification a good thing for the region?
Yes, I think it was. Australia were far too good compared to the rest and I’m pretty sure this has given every other Oceania nation a hope that they can now make an OFC Nations Cup final, where previously those spots would be earmarked for Australia and New Zealand. Now the others have a chance of making a final and maybe even beating New Zealand. Tahiti did so in 2012 and Papua New Guinea only lost on penalties in the last tournament way back in 2016.
What do you make of the 2022 qualification tournament?
I think the tournament style is a good one, in these Covid times you have to do what you can to get the qualification done. But I would of course prefer it to revert to the old format for the next cycle as it would mean more games spread out over time. As for the location of the tournament in Qatar, I’m less than pleased, with everything we’ve seen around the violation of human rights, deaths and horrible working conditions for the migrant workers building the stadiums for the World Cup. Personally, I wish OFC had found another location but I can see why they’ve landed on Qatar, with, I assume, some friendly nudging from FIFA.
Do you see anyone other than New Zealand coming out on top?
I don’t see anyone other than NZ winning it, sadly. Although because of the tournament structure, which falls outside the FIFA window for the first two matches if memory serves, then there is a chance NZ would have to make do without the likes of Chris Wood and other European-based players, so maybe there’s a chance of the other nations taking advantage and causing an upset, but it is unlikely.
As for the best of the rest, I think it’s quite a tight field. The likes of Solomon Islands, Tahiti, New Caledonia and PNG I would consider favourites for the “best of the rest” award, with Vanuatu a dark horse. But these teams have barely played the last three years so it’s quite difficult to tell.
The Oceanic winner is scheduled to play the 4th best team in CONCACAF. Do you think New Zealand are good enough to win this tie?
If NZ were to win the OFC Qualifiers I think they have a decent chance against a team like Panama or Costa Rica. Should they get really unlucky and have Mexico fall down to the fourth place, I think their chances of making it fall dramatically.
What can Oceanic teams do to take a step to the next level in terms of being a truly competitive region (not in terms of competing at the World Cup, but in terms of it being less of a one-horse race). And what can FIFA do to help?
Playing more international matches, preferably against lower ranked Asian or African sides. OFC teams play way too few matches, especially the likes of Cook Islands, American Samoa, Tonga and Samoa. The Cooks haven’t played an international match since the last World Cup qualifiers!
Under normal non-Covid circumstances, the likes of Fiji, Tahiti, Solomon Islands PNG and Vanuatu play a few matches here and there, with some also playing teams like Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia. I’d like to see more of that when things return to normal in this world, I think that’s very important for development.
But playing matches like this costs money, especially for teams with long distance travelling, and I think FIFA needs to help the teams out even more if they would like to see them play more games. Will they do that? Highly unlikely, but one can hope.