With the draw for the group stages of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup just two weeks away, the Oceania Football Confederation finally started its World Cup qualifying matches.
Oceania only gets half a place at the World Cup. The best of the eight nations competing in the OFC World Cup qualifying will have the chance to contest a playoff match against the fourth-placed team from North America (most likely Panama or Costa Rica) in June for a solitary World Cup spot.
But while the road to Qatar 2022 is difficult, in one way, the teams from Oceania have already reached their destination.
Due to Covid-19, all the OFC’s qualifying matches are being held in the Qatari capital Doha, though they are being played at the smaller Al-Arabi Stadium and Qatar SC Stadium rather than at any of the actual World Cup venues.
It might seem odd that they would fly halfway around the world for these games, but the use of a single venue could actually help these countries avoid expensive flights to multiple away games. Tahiti player Tutehau Tufariua has said playing this in Qatar is “already a bit like our World Cup”.
Covid-19 is also the reason why these matches are taking place in March 2022. They were supposed to start in September 2020, but have been delayed several times.
While soccer in Europe has basically been back to normal for almost a season, soccer in the Pacific is still at a standstill, with the region opting to ban travel as one of its main ways to combat the virus.
As well as the World Cup qualifiers, the 2020 OFC Nations Cup was also canceled, as were the 2020 and 2021 editions of the OFC Champions League. The region didn’t send a team to the 2020 Club World Cup and had to nominate AS Pirae for the 2021 tournament.
And the teams aren’t free from the virus, even in Qatar. Tahiti’s opening match against Vanuatu on March 18th was called off after a Covid-19 outbreak left Vanuatu unable to field a full team. Vanuatu could end up going home without having kicked a ball.
A day earlier in the opening match of Group A, the Solomon Islands beat the Cook Islands 2-0 with two first-half goals. That puts them in a good position to advance from their four-team group and reach the semi-finals of qualifying. If they get that far, they will play one of the teams in Group B, which contains relative heavyweights New Zealand.
New Zealand reached the World Cup back in 2010, the first year since regional rivals Australia moved to the Asian Football Confederation. They beat Bahrain in the World Cup qualifying play-off, then went on to be the only undefeated team at South Africa 2010, drawing their three matches against Slovakia, Paraguay and Italy but still getting eliminated at the group stage. It was New Zealand’s second World Cup appearance as they also qualified in 1982 when OFC and AFC qualification was combined.
In the previous two World Cup qualification stages, New Zealand have once again been Oceania’s best side, but they lost in the inter-continental play-offs to Mexico in 2014 and Peru in 2018.
Apart from New Zealand, the sides that are probably most likely to reach the knockout stage are the Solomon Islands, who are the second-highest ranked team in the OFC, 2012 OFC Nations Cup winners Tahiti, and New Caledonia, whose club side Hienghene Sport won the 2019 OFC Champions League.
But there are more than eight countries in Oceania. In fact, soccer globetrotter Paul Watson, who once managed Micronesian island Pohnpei’s soccer team, reckons that while there are eight teams taking part in qualifying, There are at least that number who have been excluded.
Both Samoa and American Samoa withdrew due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, and Tonga is still recovering from a devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami. Several other teams were unable to take part due to administrative problems affecting the Oceania Football Confederation and the difficulty of organizing international soccer between several tiny islands that are hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
Even though the seven other sides will likely succumb to New Zealand and their European-based stars like Newcastle United’s Chris Wood, playing this tournament in Qatar might get them a bit more recognition than usual and perhaps offers a way to run OFC’s qualification stages in the future.