08/08/11
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The 7th Inning Stretch

Last weekend it was made clear how the All White’s pathway to the next World Cup in Brazil will look by a draw made by a shockingly fat Ronaldo in Rio. To my surprise, the draw was conducted corruption-free (a FIFA first), leaving the All Whites a pretty positive scenario: win in Oceania, and beat the fourth best side in North America.

The first part of the job is straightforward. The second would involve a playoff against somebody like Honduras, Panama, or Costa Rica. And that is, well, doable. That’s the scary thing. We actually have a chance.

Compare that with what might have been—Paraguay, Peru, or Colombia—and you’d be forgiven for thinking the same thing as me: hope.
So between now and 2014, there will be a handful of competitive international matches in the country. There’ll be matches against the likes of Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. And then the biggie: the playoff. There’ll be the hype of that one game, much like the Bahrain match in 2009. It’ll be massive.
But as exciting as it is to look ahead to that one match, the fact is that, barring a minor miracle in terms of organising ‘friendly’ matches, the football fans of New Zealand really have only one international match to look forward to over the next three years. If the Phoenix falter, or even die out, it might be three very long years for soccer.

The matches against Oceanian nations, while still important, aren’t really much of a challenge. It would take a performance of enormous proportions for the likes of Fiji to topple New Zealand over the course of three footballing years. Which brings me to the solution: we need to move into Asia.

Australia did it in 2005—and look at them now. They’re somewhere near the summit of Asia, and their qualification route will be a heck of a lot more interesting than ours.

Put it in perspective—by beating Bahrain and qualifying for South Africa, we were effectively beating Asia’s fifth best side. Their top four qualified for the Cup. I daresay the All Whites would compete against the likes of North Korea—who, somehow, qualified.

Sure, it might restrict the All Whites from that almost-guaranteed quadrennial playoff match. It may even delay our next appearance at a Football World Cup but in the long run, it’s a no-brainer.

It would give NZ Football a handful of competitive, marketable matches over the course of the four years. It throws up the very real possibility of trans-Tasman matches. It gives us entry into the Asia Cup. And it does my beloved Phoenix a world of good, relieving the tension between the Asian Football Confederation and NZ Soccer.

I understand there are issues in doing so: logistics, FIFA’s reluctance and maybe the sacrifice of ever seeing an ‘Oceanian’ nation at the World Cup again. But from a completely selfish, football-hungry sports nut’s perspective, it needs to happen—and soon.
But until it happens, best of luck to the All Whites in their playoff in 2013.

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