Comment: Is Oceania a sustainable confederation?

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FIFA President Seth Blatter may face hostile opinion when he visits Papua New Guinea to attend the 16-19th January congress of the Oceania Football Confederation. According to Terry Maddaford of the New Zealand Herald, he "is certain to face a please-explain over his 'professional teams only' stance for future FIFA Club World Cups after pointing the finger at 'amateur' Auckland City during last month's club championship in Japan. With FIFA presidential elections looming, Blatter will be keen to keep the 11 OFC countries onside but, as OFC secretary-general Tai Nicholas pointed out ... Blatter alone cannot make such decisions."

From his comments, Blatter understands the current OFC structure is a marketing nightmare for the Club World Cup and other FIFA events. The OFC's full members are the little known Pacific Ocean island nations of Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, the French territories of Caledonia and Tahiti, American Samoa and the NZ-associated Cook Islands. Its combined population of just 10.3 million is miniscule compared to the neighbouring Asian Confederation member, Australia’s 20 million, let alone to the great confederations of Asia, Europe, Africa, North/Central America and South America.

In comparison to say, the huge sponsorship, broadcasting and attendance interest in the AFC's Asian Cup or UEFA's Euro Cup, Oceania's Cup in 2004 had no broadcasting, a total spectator attendance of less than 30,000 and a net financial result of a quarter of a million dollar loss.

And yet the OFC’s amateur clubs have direct access to the six team, FIFA Club World Cup tournament in Tokyo with its minimum 'turn-up' prize of US$1 million. The OFC also has a guaranteed "half-slot" to the 2008 World Cup South Africa which, FIFA has already announced, will involve a play-off with Asia during the final round of the Asian Football Confederation's qualifiers.

Asked if the A-League's Auckland-based franchise, the New Zealand Knights, as the only fully-professional team in Oceania, should automatically be given the OFC spot for the Club World Cup, Tai Nicholas told Terry Maddaford: "I'm sure the clubs playing the New Zealand Football Championship would not want a bar of that ... .We understand the clubs' feelings as the world championship remains their only incentive. We also have to consider the reaction of the island nations who play their way through to the six-team O-League in the hope of getting to Japan.”

The possibility of the Knights facing-off against the O-League winner to qualify for Tokyo was not mentioned, possibly because the Knights are currently “in limbo” with both the AFC’s Asian Champions League and the OFC’s O-League. Asia considers the Knights a New Zealand (therefore OFC) club playing in the A-league and ineligible to play in the Asian Champions League even if it won the Australian Premiership or Championship. The OFC currently regards the Knights as an Australian (therefore AFC) club playing in Auckland and ineligible for its honours.

Whatever the fate of the Knights, Nicholas said the OFC will be insisting it retains direct entry to the Club World Cup. "The winner of our O-League which starts next week and will be over by April, should be our representative in Japan," he said. "We will back our stance by saying that Auckland City's 2-0 loss to African champions Al Ahly is by no means a thrashing and suggesting that perhaps the professional teams did not perform as well as they should have against an amateur team."

And with Blatter presumably not interested in alienating 11 votes in the next FIFA presidential election, the status quo is likely to stay. After all, it was Blatter who promised Oceania a full slot to the World Cup finals when electioneering the last time around. It got him Oceania votes but his World Cup promise was later over-ruled by the FIFA executive.

But those were the days when Australia was a member of the OFC and its continental land-mass gave credibility to FIFA granting to Oceania (only in 1997) the status of a confederation equal to those of other continents.

Without Australia, however, the OFC is merely a collection of small Pacific states with a vastly smaller population to any of the four constituent federations of the Asian Confederation or even the Caribbean islands zone of CONCACAF (Cuba’s alone is 11 million). There are also no development issues faced by OFC members that differ from those faced by similar, small Pacific Ocean islands, such as Guam and Timor Leste in the AFC.

Perhaps FIFA should look closely at reducing Oceania to a federation within Asia and balancing that with turning the AFC’s West Asia Federation into a full Confederation.

Simply swapping Ocean-ia for Sand-ia, so to speak.

That would both quieten the objections of West Asian Games president, Sheikh Talal al Fahd al Sabah and Ahmad Al-Fahad Al Sabah, the president of the Olympic Council of Asia, to Australia joining the AFC (Kuwait wouldn’t have to face Australia in play-offs anymore) and also Iranian criticism that the AFC is dominated by Arabs.

More importantly, the larger population of the “Sandia Football Confederation”, its footballing progress and all the football infrastructure that its oil can buy, would provide the Club World Cup with a credible sixth team.

UPDATE (18 Jan)

Visiting Papua New Guinea for the first time, FIFA President Seth Blatter told reporters in Port Moresby that Australia's exit from the Oceania Football Confederation was both a challenge and a risk for the remaining 11 island nations in the 'continental' grouping.

He said the unity shown at the OFC's conference augured well for the confederation to implement a concerted plan of action to lift the status of the game in the region.

The departure of the Socceroos to join the Asian Football Confederation was "a positive challenge for the remaining national associations but at the same time it's also a risk", Blatter said, as quoted by The Australian. In the past, there was practically only one association representing the OFC in FIFA competitions and that was Australia, he added.

"I'm full of confidence that with the departure of Australia there is more space in Oceania, they can breathe," he said.

Because of late changes to his scheduled plans, Blatter could not visit the Football for Hope program funded jointly funded by FIFA and United Nations on the former separatist war-torn island of Bougainville in West New Britain province. Henry Morabang of The National reported Blatter could not spare the extra time as he leaves tomorrow morning for Moscow, "where he will continue his campaign for the FIFA general election in May."

UPDATE (20 Jan)

FIFA President Sepp Blatter apologised to delegates to the Papua New Guinea Football Association congress in Port Moresby for his tight schedule but promised to visit Bougainville if he was re-elected [to the FIFA presidency], Wendy Katusele reported for The National.

UPDATE (23 Jan)

Oceania Football Confederation president Reynald Temarii, of the French territory of Tahiti, has been appointed a FIFA vice-president, the first time such an honour has been bestowed on an OFC president.