BY CRAIG STEPHEN
It’s been ten years since Australia left the Oceania football federation for Asia, an apt point at which to reflect on how the parting has left the sport in the region.
At the time, there was muted relief when they did leave – the Aussies had become too big for their boots, on and off the pitch. They were a shark in a goldfish bowl and the beast had become restless and ready to jump.
Undoubtedly, the move has proven to be a prescient one for Australia, with victory in the Asian Cup in 2015 and the Western Sydney Wanderers lifting the Asian Champions League in 2014. Only Japan and South Korea seem to have the strength to challenge their European-laden stars.
But in the 11-member Oceania federation, the situation seems fluid, with evidence of both gradual improvement, with the better access to top tournaments and of stagnation, despite extra money from FIFA.
The expectation was that New Zealand would take over Australiaâ€™s big brother role, and that has largely played out. But it was never one-way traffic anyway, with the All Whites famously qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, and ousting Australia from two Confederations Cups. Given their defeat of Bahrain in the play-off and subsequent draws against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay in the 2010 World Cup finals there’s no reason to believe that the All Whites wouldnâ€™t have denied the Aussies a spot in South Africa.
In womenâ€™s football and at under-age level, yes, New Zealand is the new class bully. But the All Whites have laboured to exert their clear population and monetary advantages. An embarrassing semi-final defeat to New Caledonia in the 2012 Oceania Nations Cup left the door open for Tahiti to bag the riches from the Confederations Cup, and they were dismally languid in this year’s contest, requiring a penalty shootout after a turgid 120 minutes against hosts Papua New Guinea in the final in Port Moresby last May.
Throughout the Cup, the New Zealanders struggled to contain the speedier, free-flowing play of the Pacific sides, whose tactical naivety and lack of decisiveness in front of goal effectively crushed their hopes.
Despite being hosts, PNG – under the guidance of former Danish U-21 gaffer Flemming Serritslev – were the shock troops of the Cup. This is a country thatâ€™s been missing in action over the past 15 years, not playing a single match between 2007 and 2011.
And yet, with little competitive action beforehand, PNG matched Tahiti and New Caledonia and thrashed Samoa in their group matches, and defeated the fancied Solomon Islanders in the semi-final. Had they seen off New Zealand – as frankly they should have – they would have been the lowest ranking Confederations Cup entrant, starting the Nations Cup off at 202. They’re now up to 162.
It was hoped that the Cup would result in some players being snapped up by clubs in Australia, and France, but there’s little indication of wholesale movement.
Success stories have been few and far between. Henry Fa’arodo and Benjamin Totori, both Solomon Islanders, have played, irregularly it has to be said, in the trans-Tasman A-League; Fiji’s Roy Krishna is now a star striker at the Wellington Phoenix; Jai Ingham is an Australian-born winger who made seven appearances for Melbourne Victory last season and was picked for Samoa for PNG. However, he withdrew from the squad and is yet to make his debut for the national side.
On the other side of the world, four New Caledonian players are signed to lowly French clubs, including Georges Gope-Fenepej, who was briefly at the books of Ligue 1 side, Troyes.
It is at club level that the real hope lies for the sparsely-populated countries. The O-League has provided Pacific-wide clubs the opportunity to battle each other for a place in the World Club Championship. PNG’s Hekari usurped everyone to take the honours in 2010, and thereâ€™s been decent crowds for finals matches and shock results. But it’s been dominated by Auckland City for the past six years, and three out of the last four finals have been all-Kiwi affairs.
Auckland haven’t just been fodder to the continental big guns, taking third place in 2014 after wins over Moghreb Tetouan of Morocco, the African champions ES Setif and Cruz Azul for third spot.Â Â Not bad for a part-time side.
So this is where the OFC and its constituents sit: neither in a state of contentment nor so weak FIFA would have to consider scrapping the entity altogether and force the sides to play in Asia (most of whom wouldnâ€™t). Itâ€™s a Rugby-obsessed region where Union and League players with talent instantly head overseas (Fji, Samoa and Tonga) and those with little tradition of the oval ball (Solomons, Tahiti, New Caeldonia and Vanuatu) are not having to fret about competition for starting positions in emerging football academies.
A day when a pacy winger gets snapped up by a top European league is probably fanciful, but my hope is that more talent can find their way into the A-League, or at the least the Australian state leagues and the NZ national league.
With $AU30 million being pumped into the region by FIFA annually over the next four years and one million registered players, Oceaniaâ€™s football bosses should think thoughtfully and positively about how they want the game to progress.
Meanwhile, three embarrassing, schoolboy thrashings last year havenâ€™t deterred the Federated States of Micronesia.
In only their second appearance at the Pacific Games, and first since 2003, the Four Stars suffered a first-up thumping to Tahiti, by 30-0, followed by a 38-0 defeat to Fiji and a 46-0 loss to Vanuatu, the latter two beating the 31-0 victory of Australia over American Samoa in 2001 as the worst results in international football.
The scattered island group has only two full-sized football pitches and remoteness prevented the team from training as a unit on a regular basis. However, the Federated States of Micronesia will be allowed to compete at the 2018 Pacific Games.
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