Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: OFC call could cost Whites

Michael McGlinchey is one of nine All Whites on a yellow card. Photo / Andrew Cornaga
Michael McGlinchey is one of nine All Whites on a yellow card. Photo / Andrew Cornaga

For the All Whites, the road to Rio and the 2014 World Cup has just got a lot more complicated, thanks partly to an unusual decision by the Oceania Football Confederation.

The decision means that, presuming New Zealand progress to the final stage of qualifying, it is unlikely they will be at full-strength for the winner-takes-all playoff against the CONCACAF representatives.

The All Whites are well placed to progress as Oceania's representative, as they have recorded four wins from four games and are three points ahead of nearest rivals New Caledonia. Les Cagous, who beat the All Whites in Honiara at the Nations Cup, are the next opponents and, while it will be an extremely tough match, the All Whites will be favoured to take the point they require to qualify for the next phase.

The complication is the number of players walking a suspension tightrope.

Nine players - including key men like Tommy Smith, Winston Reid, Shane Smeltz, Chris Wood and Michael McGlinchey - currently have a yellow card to their name.

Any subsequent booking means they have to serve an automatic one-match suspension.

This awkward situation has arisen partly due to an OFC decision which looks stranger by the minute. During the World Cup qualification phase, FIFA allows each confederation one opportunity to issue a cancellation of cautions, which effectively clears the slate for all teams. Perhaps the logical time to do this would have been after the Nations Cup in Honiara, before the final four nations (New Zealand, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Tahiti) started the current stage three of qualifying.

Instead, the OFC accepted an application from Samoa to cancel the cards they had incurred during stage one of qualifying. As the winner of stage one (against Tonga, Cook Islands and American Samoa), the Samoans earned the final berth at the Nations Cup. Samoa lost all three group games, conceding 24 goals and scoring just one.

"We had a request from Samoa and decided to proceed with that one to FIFA," says OFC director of competitions David Firisua. "It wasn't an easy decision - it was a very hard decision but we didn't want to have any perceived bias towards any team. We used up our quota [of caution cancellations] back in March so it is not possible to do anything now.

"Any cards and suspensions earned in the remaining games will be carried over into the intercontinental play-offs as FIFA sees the qualifying process as a whole entity."

While there are still two matches to play in qualifying, the All Whites will likely go into the first leg of that play-off with a majority of their starting line-up on one card and in grave danger of missing the second leg through suspension.

The only foreseeable way out is a slightly left-field solution. Some of the affected players could get themselves booked deliberately in the match against New Caledonia. They could then serve a one-match suspension for the final qualifying game against the Solomon Islands and enter the playoffs with a clean slate. But that assumes the All Whites would have the game under control.

NZF CEO Grant McKavanagh admitted he was unsure if the cards would carry over into the intercontinental playoffs: "It that was the case it would be a bad situation but I am not sure what we could do about it."

In slightly more positive news, FIFA has confirmed the home and away dates for the playoff, and Oceania's representatives will again have the preferred situation of hosting the second leg.

It is generally seen as favourable to have the "death or glory" match on home soil, when the required result is precisely known.

McKavanagh also confirmed that NZF are considering making an approach to FIFA to see if the dates for the playoffs can be changed.

While last time there was a month between the match in Bahrain and the return leg in Wellington, the two matches this time have been set down for November 14 and 20.

There is a concern that the short time between games will compromise preparation and performance.

- Herald on Sunday

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