Monday, June 05, 2006

Oceania directly to CWC but NZ Knights in limbo

Is this the final word? According to news reports, the Oceania Football Confederation will be guaranteed direct entry to FIFA's Club World Cup played annually in Japan, despite being represented by a predominantly amateur team. A meeting of FIFA's executive committee decided against forcing the Oceania champion into another playoff for a place at the December tournament, OFC president Reynald Temarri told Associated Press on Sunday. A formal announcement was expected Monday, ending speculation that Oceania champion Auckland City would have to play off against the Japanese J-League champion for its place in the six-team format.

"I proposed that we go straight to Japan, rather than have a playoff, and my colleagues agreed," Temarri said. "Now it's our duty to be ready." Soccer New Zealand team Auckland City won the Oceania qualifying tournament last month over over Tahiti's AS Pirae and will join the Asian, African and CONCACAF champions in the opening round. The winners of that group progress to the semifinals, joining seeded South American and European teams, while first round losers play off for fifth and sixth places, a match won last year by Australia's Sydney FC.

The world club championship was relaunched last year to feature the champions from FIFA's six continental confederations. It replaced the earlier Toyota Cup format that pitted the top European and South American clubs in an annual match in Tokyo. Brazil's Sao Paulo beat English Premier League club Liverpool in the 2005 final which, not surprisingly, featured the champions of South America and Europe.

One of the criticisms of the 2005 tournament was that it lacked atmosphere because no local Japanese club was involved. No Japanese clubs figure in the last eight of the Asian Champions League, the regional qualifying tournament and Japan's last hope of having a representative at the World Club Championships was the mooted playoff against Auckland.

Acceding to a desire by competition sponsors Toyota that there be a host-nation presence in Yokohama to bolster crowd numbers, they are reported to have lost money on last year's tournament, FIFA president Seth Blatter proposed that the OFC representative should play the J-League champion, with the winner going into the main draw. He met opposition from some FIFA members who pointed out this was a contest between confederation champions and the Japanese League winner did not fit that criterion.

A further proposal was that the OFC champion should play last year's winner - in this case South American champion Sao Paulo (Brazil) - with the victor going into the main draw. That too met opposition, with some pointing out it would be unfair on the OFC team.

Yet another was made by Football Federation Australia, which moved from Oceania to Asia on 1 January this year, that the New Zealand-based club that plays in its professional A-League, the NZ Knights, should participate in the OFC's championship tournament, despite the fact that it plays in an Asian Football Confederation league.

FFA head of operations Matt Carroll confirmed to Michael Cockerill of the Sydney Morning Herald that the Knights will not be able to use the A-League as a launching pad for playing internationally - even if they win the A-League premiership or championship. From next season, two A-League clubs will qualify for the Asian Champions League, with the winner of the ACL going on to play in the lucrative FIFA Club World Cup.

"This is a new problem for the AFC because New Zealand is, of course, a member of Oceania, whereas Australia is a member of Asia," Carroll said. "So are the Knights a New Zealand club playing in Australia or an Australian club resident in New Zealand? Their players are registered to us but I don't think either FIFA or the AFC are inclined to see it that way.

"We are now talking to Soccer New Zealand about a solution. If the Knights were given a place in the Oceania play-offs, I would imagine they would have a great chance of qualifying for the CWC. Given that all the other clubs in Oceania are basically amateur, I would suggest that having the Knights playing regularly in the CWC would be the best way of branding New Zealand football on the world stage."

That this has clearly been ignored by the other stakeholders, seemingly leaves the Knights in limbo, accepted neither by Asia or Oceania.

OFC secretary-general Tai Nicholas said his confederation had maintained all along that whichever OFC club won the right to play in the CWC would prefer to take their chances in the main draw. "It has now reached a situation that needs to be sorted out," he told Terry Maddaford of the NZ Herald in May. "Sepp Blatter has said there will be no more discussion until the FIFA executive meeting on 4 June."

See also: Japanese team confirmed for 2006 Club World Cup (23 Mar) and Japan still pushing for local team in Club World Cup (21 Mar) and Oceania 'request' changes FIFA 2006 Club Cup (20 Feb) and FIFA 'to allow' host team at 2006 Club World Cup (14 Feb) and Sao Paulo crowned FIFA's Club World Champions (19 Dec)

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