Qatar finally beckons for Oceania’s elite
OFC’s COVID-delayed FIFA World Cup qualifiers kick off on Thursday
Mini-tournament in Qatar will determine who reaches the intercontinental play-offs
New Zealand favourites but gap at the top had narrowed before the pandemic broke out
It’s said that good things come to those who wait and, for Oceania’s top players, preparing for a shot at this year’s FIFA World Cup™ has been the ultimate exercise in patience.
While other confederations’ qualifying journeys are nearing an end after months and years of twists and turns, OFC’s eight hopefuls are only now preparing to start out on the road to Qatar.
The impact of COVID-19, and the resultant travel restrictions in the region, have wreaked havoc with football is this vast but sparsely populated corner of the globe.
Indeed, with international competition in Oceania effectively off the menu since 2019, it is in Qatar – the home of this year’s global finals – that the continent’s hopefuls will fight it out in a centralised preliminary tournament.
The OFC preliminary competition will be played in a mini-tournament format featuring eight teams and consisting of a round-robin group stage, semi-finals and final.
Group A Solomon Islands Tahiti Vanuatu Cook Islands
Group B New Zealand New Caledonia Fiji Papua New Guinea
The winner will represent Oceania in the FIFA intercontinental play-off matches in June 2022. A meeting with the fourth-placed team from the Concacaf zone will determine which of the two will participate at the FIFA World Cup itself.
The opening two matches take place at the Grand Hamad Stadium in Doha on 17 March, with the final set to be held at the same venue 13 days later.
Having prevailed in all three qualifying competitions since Australia’s departure to AFC, New Zealand undoubtedly start as the team to beat. The All Whites are the continent’s highest-ranked team for a reason and come into these matches in solid form, having ended 2021 with three straight friendly victories.
Coach Danny Hay has named a squad that includes plenty of familiar names, among them veteran trio Chris Wood, Kosta Barbarouses and Tommy Smith, but which also includes Wellington Phoenix youngsters Ben Old and Ben Waine. Although it is their first time in the senior squad, the youthful pair have been lauded as “serious footballers” by Hay, who suggested both could have a part to play in Doha.
The Solomon Islands also have genuine ambitions of winning the tournament, and arrive well prepared and with morale boosted by some encouraging pre-tournament friendly performances in Australia. Their Spanish coach, Felipe Vega-Arango, has named a squad includes Micah Lea'alafa, Raphael Le'ai and Alvin Hou, all of whom played for the Kurukuru at the FIFA Futsal World Cup™ in Lithuania in 2021.
Fiji are another team capable of producing scintillating performances. And while Roy Krishna, 34, is back to lead the Bula Boys, it was a lesser-known attacking star – 25-year-old Sairusi Nalaubu – who impressed in Qatar last week, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-0 pre-tournament friendly win over Vanuatu.
“Over the past year we have shown people what we are capable of as a team. Now is when we have to put everything we have been talking about into practice as we fight to return to the World Cup.” Danny Hay, New Zealand coach
"We have players who know themselves, and can teach others, what level they must reach in terms of intensity, concentration and discipline in order to achieve good results.” Sam Garcia, Tahiti coach
"We are not afraid of New Zealand. I am 100 per cent sure the team will do something positive in Qatar. The squad has shown amazing resilience and their ability to absorb what is being taught augers well for their success." Marcos Gusmao, Papua New Guinea coach