Smith: All Whites' best chance lies in Asia zone

TONY SMITH
Last updated 14:40 21/06/2013
Rory Fallon
SHANE WENZLICK
GLORY DAYS: Rory Fallon celebrates after his goal against Bahrain in Wellington in 2009 gave the All Whites a place at the 2010 World Cup.

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OPINION: Australia's inevitable qualification for the World Cup finals must have the All Whites casting an envious backward glance at Asia.

The Socceroos class of 2013 can't hold a candle to the teams that played in the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals.

Yet they have clinched a berth in the Brazil 2014 tournament, almost by default, after a scratchy 1-0 win with a late goal against Iraq in Sydney on Tuesday night.

Australia had qualified for just one World Cup finals before quitting Oceania to join the Asian Confederation in 2005.

That move has proved particularly prescient because the Socceroos have now made the cut for three successive World Cup tournaments as one of the three automatic qualifiers from the Asia Football Confederation (AFC).

Asia is, numerically, one of the strongest football confederations but arguably the weakest, outside Oceania, on the pitch.

Japan (ranked 32 in the world), South Korea (40) and Australia (47) seem to have a stranglehold on the World Cup tickets.

The All Whites (ranked a flattering 57th) qualified for the 2010 World Cup finals after winning the Oceania qualifying group and beating Asia's fourth-ranked nation, Bahrain, 1-0, in a home and away inter-continental playoff.

Before 2010, the Oceania champions faced a playoff against the strong South American confederation (Conmebol). Asia seemed a more natural match-up.

But, bizarrely, the rules were changed for the 2014 tournament. Instead of deciding beforehand who the Oceania champions would face, Fifa conducted a random draw, and the "lucky" marble belonged to Concacaf (comprising North America, Central America and the Caribbean).

Oceania's hopes of having another World Cup finals representative suddenly became much tougher with one flick of Fifa functionary Gordon Savic's wrist.

The All Whites' leadership group was always privately confident of beating Bahrain in the last inter-continental playoffs.

But getting past a Concacaf rival in the home and away series in November will be a much more daunting assignment.

Whereas Asia doesn't have a single country in the top 30 on the Fifa rankings chart, Concacaf has two - perennial World Cup qualifiers Mexico (17) and the United States (28).

Four other Concacaf countries, Panama (38), Costa Rica (48), Jamaica (49) and Honduras (52), are ranked above the All Whites, who are one place ahead of the fourth-ranked AFC nation, Uzbekistan.

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The next-ranked Asian teams are Iran (67) and Jordan (75). Bahrain, the Kiwis' rivals in 2009, have slipped to 117th.

The US lead Concacaf's Hexagonal (or Hex) qualifying group with 13 points after six of 10 matches. Costa Rica have 11 points, Mexico 8, Honduras 7, Panama 6 and Jamaica 2.

Will the Hex be on New Zealand? The All Whites did score a morale-boosting 1-0 win over Honduras in 2012 with a world-class goal by Shane Smeltz from a Jeremy Brockie cross. But that match was played in Dallas, Texas.

New Zealand football teams have traditionally had slim pickings in Central and South America with just one draw (2-2 against Uruguay in 1995) to show from their past six matches in that part of the world.

Beating Honduras or Panama - or, perish the thought, 14-time World Cup finalists Mexico - over two legs isn't quite an impossible dream. But it would be a feat to rival the unbeaten record in the 2010 World Cup finals.

Oceania can't expect automatic qualification for the World Cup finals. It wouldn't be a good week to advance that argument, with Oceania champions Tahiti routed by a record 10-0 scoreline against World Cup and European champions Spain at the Confederations Cup finals.

Don't forget, too, that Spain thrashed the All Whites 5-0 at the 2009 tournament.

It wouldn't be fair on the rest of the football world if Oceania got a free pass, though that would be a great result for New Zealand.

But Oceania Football Confederation officials should be moving heaven and earth to convince Fifa that its future qualification path must always be through Asia. Didn't former prime ministers Paul Keating (Australia) and Jim Bolger (New Zealand) declare 20 years or more ago that our nations were part of Asia?

Should Oceania simply shut up shop and follow Australia into the Asian confederation fold? That might make it easier for an Oceania nation to make the men's World Cup finals, but it would make it much harder for age-group teams who benefit from such exposure.

But it would lead to more regular, intensive international exchanges in the qualifying stages and through competitions like the Asian Championships.

The ideal interim step would be to include the Oceania champions in an eight-team AFC qualifying group. The AFC nations wouldn't willingly agree because some would see the All Whites as a legitimate threat.

But Fifa should impose it on the grounds of geographic sense and fairness.

- Fairfax Media

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