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The All Whites are set to face at least one Oceania minnow, if not two, when qualifying for the 2022 Fifa World Cup begins next March, raising the prospect of some one-sided scorelines.
All eleven Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) members are set to take part in the first stage of World Cup qualifying under a proposal submitted to Fifa and made public on Tuesday.
They will be split into a group of six and a group of five, based on their Fifa rankings, with group stage matches to be played in March and June 2021.
The All Whites, ranked 122nd in the world, will therefore potentially have to play one or two of American Samoa, ranked 192nd; Samoa, ranked 194th; Tonga, ranked 203rd; and the Cook Islands, who aren’t ranked at all – teams they would likely beat handsomely if they made a 100 per cent effort with a full-strength squad.
The top two teams from each group will advance to the semifinals, which will be contested on a home-and-away basis next September, with the winners advancing to the finals, which will be contested on a home-and-away basis the following month.
Whichever team comes out on top will then have the November and March windows to prepare for the intercontinental home-and-away playoff the top Oceania team must win in June 2022 to book their place at the World Cup in Qatar, scheduled for November and December that year.
Fifa is yet to determine where the Oceania team’s opponent will come from, with the fifth-placed Asian team, the fifth-place South American team, or the fourth-placed North and Central American team the three possible options.
The All Whites last qualified for the World Cup in 2010, when they finished top in Oceania then beat Bahrain 1-0 on aggregate in the intercontinental playoff in November 2009.
They were beaten 9-3 by Mexico at the same stage ahead of the 2014 event and 2-0 by Peru ahead of the 2018 event.
Danny Hay’s side have secured a friendly against world No 1 Belgium this October, but it remains to be seen if the Covid-19 pandemic will allow that fixture in Brussels to go ahead.
Hay has only had two matches with the All Whites since taking charge last August – losses to the Republic of Ireland and Lithuania in November last year.
All Whites coach Danny Hay is looking forward to hopefully playing Belgium in Brussels in October.
The group stage of World Cup qualifying will likely allow him to select some of the younger players he has on offer, as passage to the final four should be easy to secure. That could come in handy, as he will also take charge of the OlyWhites under-23 team for the Tokyo Olympics, if they go ahead as scheduled next July.
In recent times in men’s football, the 11 OFC nations have typically been split into a stronger group of seven – New Zealand, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea – and a weaker group of four – American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, and the Cook Islands.
The All Whites haven’t played any of the group of four since 2001, when they had a 2-0 win over the Cook Islands.
That was the same year Australia famously beat American Samoa 31-0, with Archie Thompson scoring 13 goals.
Oceania World Cup qualifying was originally meant to start in August and September this year, but, as it has with most things, the Covid-19 pandemic forced a delay.
The 2022 World Cup is the last one where the top Oceania team will have to win a playoff, with direct entry set to be on offer from 2026 when it expands from 32 teams to 48.
SOURCE: STUFF NZ/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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