Cook Islands has earned a direct entry into the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification tournament in Qatar in March after Tonga pulled out following the large volcanic eruption and tsunami which struck the island nation on 15 January.

The national team was scheduled to play Tonga in the qualifiers match for a place in the group stage of the competition where they will get a chance to play against Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu.

But after the devastating impacts of this month’s natural disaster in Tonga, their national side has withdrawn from taking part in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ OFC preliminary competition.

The large volcanic eruption and tsunami which struck on 15 January has caused widespread damage across much of Tonga and impacted over 80 per cent of the population.

Many in Tonga have had their homes badly damaged or destroyed and issues with basic necessities such as safe drinking water are likely to exist for the foreseeable future.

Tonga had been set to playoff against the Cook Islands in a single-leg qualifying match to decide who earned the right to contest Group A at the tournament in Qatar, from which Oceania’s representative for the intercontinental playoff will be found.

The withdrawal means the qualifying match, which was scheduled for 13 March, now won’t take place and the Cook Islands will instead automatically join the Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu in Group A.

Cook Islands News yesterday contacted Cook Islands Football Association for comments and update on the national team’s preparation for this qualifier but did not receive a reply.

In December Cook Islands Football Association (CIFA) competition manager, Pauline Dean said initially they were not certain about participating in this tournament. The decision to compete in this event was made following the easing of international borders.

“There were a lot of things that we had to consider like the cost due to quarantine and especially the time away from family and work. We didn’t want to put that sort of pressure on our players,” Dean earlier said.

“But with the announcement of border reopening, it made things a bit easier travel-wise so we decided to confirm our participation.”

Oceania Football Confederation general secretary Franck Castillo said while it is disappointing for Tonga, the decision is understandable.

“The focus for much of Tonga right now – including members of the football community – is on rebuilding their lives and caring for family members and friends who have been impacted by the disaster,” Castillo said.

“This has seen the Tonga Football Association reluctantly withdraw from the preliminary competition.

“Our thoughts remain with everyone in Tonga and we will continue to support the community there through our fundraising campaign and other means.”

Last week the OFC launched the Li’oa Ma’a Tonga – Give your all, for Tonga fundraising campaign, which will distribute donations towards repairing homes, securing essential equipment such as generators and assisting children with psychosocial recovery, health and safety and emergency kits through the OFC Emergency Programme.

In addition to the travel complications created by the disaster, border controls and a lack of repatriation flights due to the Covid-19 pandemic remain a barrier to travel in and out of Tonga.