For most football fans, following the fortunes of their nations in World Cup qualification is quite simple, with the prospect of direct qualification or the nervousness of a potential playoff the only options for nations within the powerhouse confederations of UEFA and CONMEBOL.
However, for the global minnows that occupy the spots outside of the FIFA top 100 rankings, qualification is a particularly long road filled with complexities, with just a glimmer of footballing progress.
World Cup qualification for nations based in some the planet’s farthest-flung areas from the footballing heartlands does not represent a genuine chance of actually qualifying for the tournament, as their qualification route often borders on impossible.
The preference for many of these nations is to use their campaigns as an opportunity to place themselves as the best of the rest within their continental framework. This in turn regularly leaves the real issue of qualification in the hands of the continental dominant force, a title normally shared by a small number of nations.
In the example of Europe, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have operated as the continent’s powers, generally sharing success with the likes of England and the Netherlands.
The same pattern occurs in South America, with Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil the continent’s most successful sides on a global scale, with rivals such as Chile and Columbia making headway.
Of course, there is always room for growth and new success, as was seen with Greece’s 2004 European Championship win, Portugal doing the same this summer, and Chile’s back-to-back Copa America wins in 2015 and 2016.
However, for many remote nations their chances of ever qualifying for a global tournament are slim, with both geography against them and a significant lack of competitive resources.
There is no region where this is more apparent than Oceania where, despite a growth in popularity, a predetermined low position often decides a nation’s qualification fate even before a ball is kicked. Historically, Oceania has always been the little brother of both the global football and FIFA family.
Part of the reason for this is Oceania’s relatively short history within the World Cup, only entering in the qualification process for the 1966 tournament. Within this qualification, only Australia agreed to participate following a lack of interest and availability from other Oceania sides.
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Read | The Cook Islands and football development challenges in Oceania
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Their qualification route was bizarre to say the least; having received a full set of byes through continental qualification, Australia were set to face three two-legged ties against African sides in the next stage. However, 15 of the FIFA-recognised African nations refused to participate in protest at their confederation not being granted an automatic qualification spot, with South Africa banned due to their state of apartheid.
Australia then entered into the final round of qualification – a three-team tournament against North and South Korea. South Korea quickly withdrew on political grounds, leaving Australia with just the elusive communist state standing between them and a place at the World Cup in England. However, having not kicked a ball in qualification, Australia were easily beaten by the North Koreans.
Four years later, New Zealand joined Australia as Oceania’s qualification representatives. However the Kiwis were to fall at the second hurdle, whilst Australia were again to lose at the last stage, this time to Israel.
In 1974 Australia finally broke their hoodoo by becoming the first Oceania nation to qualify for the World Cup in West Germany, after a gruelling campaign which saw them eliminate New Zealand, Iraq, Indonesia, Iran and South Korea. The 1982 finals were to be New Zealand’s first appearance, as they qualified for the tournament at the expense of Australia, China and debutants Fiji.
It appeared that Oceania could be set for a permanent place at the World Cup party, as they had successfully entered nations into successive tournaments and FIFA had improved their qualification criteria.
Oceania’s qualification would from then on be decided by an intercontinental playoff, based on the winner of the Oceania qualifiers against the fifth-placed South American side. Despite this improvement, it was to be heartbreak for Australians who reached five successive playoffs between 1986 and 2002, only to lose every one.
In 2004, the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) created a restructuring of the qualification process. In a bid to aid the smaller nations and create more competition within qualifying, the OFC declared that the OFC Nations Cup would now serve as Oceania’s World Cup qualification tournament.
The result of this change was immediate, as the Solomon Islands shocked the tournament by drawing with Australia and taking advantage of New Zealand’s surprise defeat to Tahiti, to face the Socceroos in the final.
Despite their progress, the islanders were brushed aside by Australia in the final and in the later qualifying playoff. Australia advanced to a intercontinental play-off against Uruguay, beating the South Americans and eventually reaching the last-16 of the tournament, a new high for Oceania.
The 2006 World Cup in Japan and South Korea was to be Australia’s last act as an OFC member, having been accepted as a member of the Asian Football Confederation earlier that year. The Football Federation of Australia had grown frustrated with the reluctance of FIFA to grant Oceania an automatic World Cup qualifying place and made the decision to leave for Asia to give their promising side the best chance of qualification.
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Read | The Socceroos’ quest for footballing parity
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The move was seismic for Oceania, as Australia had been the continent’s dominant force since the creation of the OFC. Despite possessing capable teams over the years, New Zealand had always been the OFC’s bridesmaid, but in 2006 they suddenly found themselves at the head of the table.
Australia’s exit was to also prove enormous for the smaller nations of the OFC, who were buoyed by their elevation up the food chain. Despite a significant gulf still existing between New Zealand and the rest, there was a developing feeling that with the might of Australia gone, someone could break the hegemony.
However, the 2008 OFC Nations Cup was another chance for New Zealand to flex their continental muscles, winning the new four-team format of the competition, which required just one round of qualifiers. They went on to beat Bahrain in their first intercontinental playoff for over 20 years and reach their second World Cup.
In the OFC Nations Cup in 2012 in the Solomon Islands, New Zealand didn’t have it all their own way, drawing with the tournament hosts in the group stage and the losing to minnows New Caledonia in the semi-finals. The Caledonians eventually lost the final to Tahiti, the first nation outside of Australia and New Zealand to win the tournament, as shock spread through the OFC.
The Tahitians were to then represent Oceania as continental champions in Brazil in the 2013 Confederations Cup, however a rule change meant that the four OFC semi-finalists had to compete in a further round of competition to select the representative for the intercontinental playoff.
This was a step too far for the islanders, with New Zealand reasserting their dominance and securing the playoff spot, but with New Caledonia unbeaten in all games against non-Kiwi opposition.
In June 2016, New Zealand reclaimed their OFC Nations Cup title, but in far from convincing style, beating the Solomon Islands 1-0 in both the group stages and the semi-final, before needing a penalty shootout to defeat tournament hosts Papua New Guinea in the final.
Another qualification restructuring means that six Oceania teams are now in the final round of continental qualifying, with New Zealand matched with New Caledonia and Fiji in Group A and Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Tahiti completing Group B. The winners of each group will face off next summer for a chance to play South America’s number five team, and have a chance of competing in Russia 2018.
Whilst the odds remain in New Zealand’s favour, the evidence of the islanders challenging Auckland’s control of Oceania is growing. Tahiti’s OFC win in 2012, coupled with the impressive performances of others, has created further optimism ahead of the next round of qualifiers.
Islands players have dominated the individual awards in the last two OFC Nations Cup tournaments and the stronger powers of New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea look the likeliest to make a move. A positive next round of qualification for any of the Group B island nations will almost certainly put them in a direct playoff with New Zealand in 2017, for the first time since the exit of Australia.
And as any eternal football optimist will tell you, over 180 minutes, anything is possible.
By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren