Michael Burgess

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

Soccer: Oceania place in Cup safe

Tahiti stand to have a torrid time in this week's Confederations Cup. But Michael Burgess, after speaking to one of football's power brokers, writes that New Zealand will not be affected.

Chris Killen in action for the All Whites. Photo / Greg Bowker
Chris Killen in action for the All Whites. Photo / Greg Bowker

One of the most powerful men in world football says New Zealand and the Oceania football region will not be disadvantaged even if, as expected, regional representatives Tahiti are embarrassed at this week's Confederations Cup.

In fact, in spite of the All Whites' own embarrassment failing to win the Oceania Nations Cup last June, Fifa general secretary Jerome Valcke, arguably the most powerful man in the game behind Fifa president Sepp Blatter, says even the expected hidings of Tahiti by Confederation Cup group opponents Spain, Uruguay and Nigeria will not damage Oceania's standing in Fifa (and thus New Zealand's).

Even more, Valcke said Oceania should push for a full World Cup place, that New Zealand should remain in the region instead of shifting, like Australia, to the Asian confederation and that Oceania's place in the game is secure.

Tahiti are mostly amateurs, with a couple of overseas-based players. They look like lambs to the slaughter even though they did for the All Whites in the now infamous 'Horror of Honiara'.

Since then, Tahiti's form has been lamentable. They lost five of their six matches in stage three of World Cup qualifying, conceding 12 goals and scoring only two. They lost a warm-up game last week to a local club reserve side in Brazil and now face world and European champions Spain, World Cup semifinalists Uruguay and African heavyweights Nigeria within seven days. In 2009, Tahiti qualified for the Under-20 World Cup but were beaten 8-0 by Spain and Venezuela and 5-0 by Nigeria.

There are fears of collateral damage to Oceania's - and by proxy New Zealand's - reputation, standing and future opportunities, considering Tahiti are supposedly the best team in the region.

But in an exclusive interview with the Herald on Sunday, Valcke said that:

• Oceania's spot at the Confederations Cup is secure, regardless of what unfolds this week.

• New Zealand Football should not join the Asian Confederation.

• Oceania should aim for a full spot at the World Cup.

• As hosts, New Zealand should target the quarter-finals of the 2015 Under-20 World Cup.

• Fifa has contributed US$120 million to the region since 1999.

'When you see that Tahiti will play in the Confederations Cup that is an amazing thing," Valcke says. "That's the beauty of football. It will be a unique experience for them."

But what about the prospect of heavy defeats?

"That is something you know can happen," says Valcke, adding that, from Fifa's point of view, defeats by more than five goals are not ideal. "It is not very nice because it gives the feeling that there are two groups - one group that you don't know exactly what they are doing there and the other group that will play the final stages."

But Valcke maintains Oceania's spot at the four-yearly tournament would not come under the microscope - and nor should it.

"If you decide that because Tahiti will have a hard time playing Spain ... and [because] of that, then why should Oceania have a spot at the Confederations Cup, then it is not any more a Confederations Cup," says Valcke. "[It] is organised for six confederations and has to remain for six, whatever Tahiti do. You have to recognise one is not as strong as the other five, and that's it.

"If we leave Oceania out of tournaments, then they have no chance at all - it would mean that you kill them," says Valcke. "It's like if you have a child and he is not talking as well as the others at school. To not disturb the good ones, we will put him in a room and we will wait for him to speak; he will never speak, he will never succeed. For a chance to improve or perform, you have to be in competition with the others."

Oceania became a full confederation (with a seat on the Fifa executive) in 1996. It is by far the smallest within the football world and has just 11 member nations. Despite this, Oceania is granted direct entry to all major Fifa competitions, with the exception of the World Cup. It would be easy for big European or South American nations to cast envious glances at Oceania's pathways into such tournaments but Valcke says it has not been a talking point.

"There is always discussion about spots at the World Cup but at the other tournaments, there is no pressure, no requests ... at all," says Valcke. "If I was Oceania, I would push to have a full slot at the World Cup. [Although] then you would have people saying why does Oceania have a full slot at the World Cup? They had a full slot at the World Cup [briefly in 2002-03] and then they moved back to a half slot with the decision of the executive committee."

Australia joined the Asian Confederation in 2005, looking to gain a greater level of competition. They have, though their age group sides now struggled to qualify for Fifa tournaments, while New Zealand has become a virtual ever-present.

"With Oceania, there have been two periods: with Australia and without Australia. Before, Australia were the big brother but now it is more New Zealand. It's strange if [other countries] from Oceania are going to Asia ... in a way, you lose some power. Oceania has the benefit of being recognised as a separate confederation in terms of Fifa support. [In Asia,] New Zealand would just be part of the big group and lose some of their power.

"For New Zealand [at the moment], the goal should be the 2015 Under-20 World Cup - to have a team that can reach at least the quarter-finals. They have already qualified for the World Cup so they can do it again. Their tournament [in South Africa] was not a bad one; at least it was better than France's," says Valcke, a Frenchman.

Valcke estimates that between 1999 and 2012 the OFC's member nations received US$120 million ($150 million) in Fifa funding.

"It is one of the confederations that is very demanding," says Valcke. "They are asking for a lot of [financial] support but it was always based on a real programme that would benefit football in that region. It is quite difficult for them; the geography of the region is just a nightmare. And Oceania is so far away from Zurich that [it could be] the last one you think about every day. But they are so awake, they call you every day 'we want to do this, we want to do that'."

Fifa have been patient with Oceania. It would have been easy to add a second European team - say Bayern Munich - to last year's Fifa Club World Cup, rather than Auckland City, who don't draw significant support outside New Zealand. It would also be a simple solution to have Tahiti face a play-off against a European or South American team and have Germany or Argentina in Brazil this week instead of the Toa Aito.

"If you start to say we have an elite group and then the rest ... it is no longer Fifa," says Valcke. "We would lose the spirit of what is an international federation. And we can do this because we have money. We are not under pressure to save money or put our money where the return on investment would be best. We have enough funds to support the 209 member associations and we have a World Cup that makes enough money to support all of the programmes that we have in place. That is our strength and why we can support everyone. We have the financial power to be patient."

Meanwhile, New Zealand Football admit they will be keeping a close eye on Tahiti's performances.

"We have worked hard to put credible results out there," says NZF high performance manager Fred De Jong.

"If Tahiti get thrashed, it is not a great look. I don't think there is a risk to direct entry because of what we have achieved over the last few years but you don't want anything out there in the football world to spread doubts."

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 28 Dec 2014 14:22:54 Processing Time: 462ms