BY TOMOS KNOX
Oceania is a continent scattered with far-flung atolls, miniscule islands, and larger, established countries such as Australia and New Zealand. However, for every Australia in Oceania, there are another hundred islands, lacking in size and economic prosperity. This makes sport very difficult, and football especially, struggles to survive.
The Oceanian Football Confederation was formed in 1966, with Australia, New Zealand and Fiji amongst the founding members. The decision was made by the football associations of Australia and New Zealand, after their applications to join the Asian Football Confederation was turned down. With no regular footballing outlet, Australia and New Zealand sought the help of Sir Stanley Rous, then-president of FIFA. In 1966, the OFC were formally accepted as part of FIFA.
In the years that ensued, football took a turn for the best in Oceania. The Oceania Cup’s innaugural edition kicked off in New Zealand, in the year of 1973. The final was played in Auckland, between New Zealand and Tahiti. The score finished 2-0 to the hosts, but, due to the absence of the Australian side, and the inclusion of many then non-FIFA teams, such as Vanuatu, the tournament received precious little attention.
The next Oceania Cup was hosted by New Caledonia, another side not affiliated with FIFA at the time, in 1980. The inclusion of Australia increased the quality of the tournament, and the ‘Socceroos’ romped to victory, beating Tahiti 4-2 in the final. However, the tournament was discontinued soon after.
New Zealand, despite some disappointing performances in the 1980 Oceania Cup, secured qualification for the 1982 World Cup. However, the All Whites were somewhat out of their depth, and lost 4-0 to Brazil, 3-0 to the Soviet Union, and 5-2 to Scotland. New Zealand exited the tournament without having gained a single point.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the OFC created another continental tournament, namely the Oceania Nations Cup. The tournament also served as a qualifier for the Confederations Cup, the tournament seemingly unloved by anybody, bar of course, Sepp Blatter. The Oceania Nations Cup’s first edition included only four teams, and had no host. Australia played New Zealand in the first semi-final, while Tahiti came up against the Solomon Islands. Both Australia and Tahiti beat their opponents, and faced each other in a final comprising of two seperate matches, the first in Camberra, Australia, and the second in Papeete, Tahiti. Australia won both legs with ease, beating Tahiti 6-0, and then 5-0.
Australia, despite winning a vast array of trophies while in the OFC, parted company with the Oceanians, joining the Asian Football Confederation in search of a higher standard of football, in 2006. Lacking players worthy of recognition, Oceanian football was struggling.
In 2008, the first regional OFC competition without Australia was played, the OFC Nations Cup. The tournament was played in a round-robin form, without a host nation. New Zealand emerged as champions, overcoming New Caledonia and Vanuatu, but beating Fiji only once, losing the second match 2-0, with goals from Roy Krishna securing victory for the Fijians.
Since this tournament, Oceanian football has progressed immensely, with New Zealand qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, and Tahiti reaching the Confederations Cup.
The departure of Australia from the OFC was hailed by many as the point at which Oceanian football would go into decline. However, the miniscule islands, cast in shadow by their larger counterparts, are slowly beginning to realise their ambitions. Tahiti would never had experienced the dazzling hights of the Confederations Cup in Brazil, had Australia not departed. New Zealand would never have had the opportunity to play in the 2010 World Cup, had Australia been there to take their place.
Despite the fact that Oceania’s largest nation decided to join the AFC, the OFC should not be disheartened. The sheer potential of the national teams has yet to have been fully explored, the promise of the Oceanian Champions League is undergoing a renaissance. It is apparent that football in Oceania will not be akin to the English Premier League, to say anything of the sort would be rash and unrealistic. However, the aforementioned departure of Australia creates a flexibility within the OFC that exists nowhere else.
With this flexiblility, the Oceanian Football Confederation will be hoping that no longer will Oceanian micro-nations’ national football teams be concealed hastily by Blatter’s FIFA, no longer will their footballing pedigree be at mercy for the football community to ridicule. The departure of Australia signalled a change in the fortunes of Oceanian football, for the better.
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