NZ backs push to merge World Cup qualifying berths of Asia and Oceania


WELLINGTON — Oceania is backing a drive to combine their World Cup playoff pathway with the larger Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in order to secure five berths at future finals for the regions, New Zealand Football said on Friday. The AFC is currently allocated four automatic qualifying slots, with the fifth-placed team going into an intercontinental playoff, while Oceania (OFC) has no direct route to the finals, only a separate playoff berth for the regional champions. Both regions suffered heavy defeats in playoffs for the 2014 World Cup last week with Oceania champions New Zealand thrashed 9-3 by Mexico over two legs, while Jordan were beaten 5-0 on aggregate by Uruguay. “We certainly see merit in the winner of the Oceania section of qualifying joining the Asian Confederation playoff structure in some way,” New Zealand Football chairman Frank van Hattum said on Friday. “It is an Oceania Football-led initiative with (OFC president) David Chung and (general secretary) Tai Nicholas heading discussions and we are supportive of their good work. “We see that a pathway through Asia would be good for the Oceania winner as it could open up a high quality match schedule while also being a better fit for nations in both confederations in terms of the geography and logistics of any playoff structure leading to a World Cup place.” AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa told reporters earlier this week they were open to incorporating the half slot from the OFC in some way.

Meaningful Matches Van Hattum said NZF had been involved in talks with the OFC on the playoff pathway for several years and was supportive of the discussions with their Asian counterparts. New Zealand assumed the mantle as Oceania heavyweights when Australia moved switched to the AFC in 2006 and have struggled to garner meaningful high-level competition, which was evident in their build-up ahead of the Mexico clash. NZF were only able to cobble together matches against two club sides in Los Angeles and an international friendly against Trinidad and Tobago immediately prior to the two-legged tie against the CONCACAF heavyweights. Former All Whites coach Ricki Herbert, after he stepped down following the second leg loss against Mexico, urged NZF and the OFC to continue to lobby for a more meaningful pathway to the finals and he felt Asia was the future. NZF has shied away from following trans-Tasman rivals Australia into the AFC because of the pathways the 11-strong Oceania confederation has into FIFA youth tournaments and the Olympics. Local pundits, however, have suggested NZF should lobby FIFA to allow the Oceania champions to enter the final round of Asian qualifying, something that Sheik Salman did not appear to rule out earlier this week. Any change in the qualification process for future tournaments would require FIFA ratification.