Football: Will Socceroos return to Oceania for expanded World Cup?

NZ's Ryan Nelsen tangles with Australia's Tim Cahill in 2010. Photo/Photosport
NZ's Ryan Nelsen tangles with Australia's Tim Cahill in 2010. Photo/Photosport

While New Zealand Football may be rubbing its hands together in glee at the prospect of an automatic Oceania berth in an expanded World Cup format, there's one thing that may yet thwart those best-laid plans.

And it's not the threat of our Pacific neighbours improving enough to deprive the All Whites, as they have occasionally over recent years.

Instead, the question is this - What if the Socceroos leave Asia and return to the Oceania Confederation?

When quizzed on this prospect yesterday, New Zealand Football chief executive Andy Martin would not be drawn to speculate.

"Tough question, really no idea," Martin told Radio Sport's Nigel Yalden. "Right now, what the president of FIFA is trying to do is ensure the game is taken to all corners of the world, so I think this is more about expansion than changing what exists today.

"It's difficult to comment on something like that."

Football Federation Australia moved to Asia in 2005 in search of a) qualification for the World Cup and b) more consistent quality opponents.

For 32 years, they had struggled to reach the game's biggest stage and had often, too often, fallen in heartbreaking fashion at the last hurdle, where the Oceania zone winners were required to face a two-legged playoff against a country from another zone.

Since moving to Asia, they have qualified for 2010 and 2014 tournaments, and have quickly established themselves as alpha dogs in their new environment. Ironically, as Asian Cup winners, they are in the same pool as New Zealand at this year's FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.

But under the new expanded 2026 World Cup format, some of the motivation for turning to Asia may no longer apply to Australia.

Sydney Morning Herald football writer Michael Cockerill has raised that prospect in the wake of FIFA's decision this week.

Even though Asia stands to virtually double its World Cup quota (from 4.5 to an expected 8.5), Cockerill contends the Roos are still more likely to qualify through a secure Oceania spot.

"Not quite guaranteed every four years, but as good as," writes Cockerill. "At the very least, that's a prize worth having a decent chat about."

Asia is more competitive than it was when Australia headed there. While the Aussies are on track to qualify again for next year's tournament, it won't be a cakewalk.

And apparently the Australian public has cooled to qualifying fixtures.

"Between 2006-10, the Socceroos averaged about 55,000 per home game, making them one of the top 10 most popular national teams in the world," reports Cockerill.

"These days, the average is down to around 35,000 and the sense is the novelty factor of playing in Asia is starting to wear off."

The thought is that FFA may be far better to take World Cup berth on offer, wear
the inconvenience of sweeping aside New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tahiti and Solomon Islands, and simply schedule "blockbuster" friendlies to keep the fans engaged.

While Socceroos have benefitted from their Asian experience, Australia's junior teams have not met with the same success, so an Oceania route would obviously help them.

But Cockerill suggests there is an even bigger reason for Australia to come home to Oceania - the hope of hosting a World Cup tournament at some point.

"As an Asian nation, Australia's chances of hosting a World Cup are negligible," he says. "Largely lost in the drama of Qatar's tained bid for the 2022 World Cup was the fact that Japan and South Korea ran spoiling bids against Australia.

"On a policial level, it's going to be a long, long time before Asia is prepared to hand over to Australia the world game's biggest prize. If ever.

"Oceania? Well, no Australia, no World Cup. A partnership with New Zealand raises the possibility of a legitimate joint bid as early as 2034 or at least in 2038."

Cockerill concludes Australia may still be better off where it is, but FFA would be silly to not even consider it.

Watch this space.

- NZ Herald

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