The 2010 FIFA World Cup will be the first time that fierce rivals New Zealand and Australia both feature. This article looks at the recent changes made to the qualification process that has allowed both countries the right to compete at the highest level, and how the decision has impacted four qualification zones.
The Oceania zone has always had a complicated method of qualification with just 0.5 places available to the 10 countries that compete. The 0.5 means that the champion of the region, after playing all their qualification games and coming out on top, does not instantly win a place at the World Cup. Instead, they get placed into a playoff with a runner up from another region and must play a two legged match for the qualification place.
The other regions that compete in these playoffs also have .5 places. They are:
Asia (4.5 places) Four guaranteed qualifiers and one playoff.
South America (4.5 places) Four guaranteed qualifiers and one playoff.
North America (3.5 palces) Three guaranteed qualifiers and one playoff.
Oceania (0.5 places) No guaranteed qualifiers just one playoff.
So what changed?
The first key change was made by Australia moving from the Oceania region to the Asia region. Australia now qualify alongside the likes of Japan, Thailand and China rather than New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Although many would argue that this is simply not fair, you can't knock the reasoning that Australia had for wanting this decision to be approved. They want to advance as a footballing nation and the Oceania zone offers very little competition due to the majority of competitors being very small Pacific islands. In order to grow, you must compete with the best.
This change between the two football confederations left the path clear for New Zealand to top the Oceania qualification zone (always dominated by Australia before) and go into the playoff game.
The second key change is that the playoff games involving the four confederations with a .5 place have all swapped around. The champions of Oceania now play against the fifth placed Asian qualifier and not the fifth placed South American. Meanwhile, the fourth placed North American qualifier must now face the fifth placed South American qualifier and not the fifth placed Asian qualifier. These changes are more clearly understood when we compare the playoff fixtures for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
Oceania Champion Vs Fifth Placed South America
Australia Vs Uruguay
Fourth Placed North America Vs Fifth Placed Asia
Trinidad & Tobago Vs Bahrain
Oceania Champion Vs Fifth Placed Asia
New Zealand Vs Bahrain
Fourth Placed North America Vs Fifth Placed South America
Costa Rica Vs Uruguay
Why make the changes?
The change will benefit all four regions as it cuts out an around the world commute for one of the legs of their playoff. It is quite ridiculous that in 2002 qualifying, Australia traveled to Uruguay the same week Trinidad and Tobago went to Bahrain. Simply put, the change made sense geographically.
The change also makes sense in terms of footballing ability. The North American region features Mexico and USA who offer very good competition for the likes of Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. Therefore, facing the fifth placed South American team is not something to fear.
Meanwhile, the Oceania champions go up against the fifth placed Asian qualifier. New Zealand playing against Bahrain is a much more level playing field than if they had to play Uruguay.
What of the future?
Whilst New Zealand are living on cloud nine for the foreseeable future, other countries in their region have very little hope of ever qualifying for a World Cup finals. FIFA will need to constantly look into the qualification process and they must be prepared to make the necessary tweaks and changes to ensure the best possible level of diversity in the competition. Even if it means shifting borders and merging confederations.
For now, I think we should enjoy this victory and praise FIFA for finally seeing the light. It has enabled a truly global World Cup for the very first time in the history of the tournament.
Now we just have to hope New Zealand get placed in England's Group!