What Are New Zealand’s Chances of Qualifying For Qatar 2022?

What Are New Zealand’s Chances of Qualifying For Qatar 2022?
© PA

Who was the only football team to go unbeaten at the 2010 World Cup? If your answer was the champions Spain, you are mistaken. Vicente del Bosque’s side lost their opening game to Switzerland, before recovering to lift the trophy at Soccer City. The answer, in fact, is New Zealand.

The All Whites drew all three of their matches in Group F, with a 0-0 stalemate against Paraguay following 1-1 draws against Slovakia and Italy.

It was a commendable effort from Ricki Herbert’s side, but a tally of three points was not sufficient to secure a place in the knockout phase. New Zealand went home early, albeit with their heads held high.

The Kiwis have not been back on the world stage since. A 9-3 aggregate defeat by Mexico in the inter-confederation play-offs put paid to their hopes of making it to Brazil in 2014. They fell at the same hurdle on the road to Russia 2018, this time going down 2-0 to a South American side, Peru.

Cross-Continental Play-Offs on the Cards Again

New Zealand will once again have to negotiate a cross-continental play-off if they are to make it to the World Cup in Qatar next year. First, though, they must come through the Oceania section of qualifying.

The format has changed this time around, primarily due to the coronavirus pandemic. In qualifying for the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, the OFC divided the campaign into three rounds. In the first, the four lowest-ranked teams – on both occasions, Tonga, Samoa, American Samoa and the Cook Islands – in the region competed for the one remaining spot in the second round, which doubled up as the OFC Nations Cup.

Eight teams were then divided into two groups. The top two in each group advanced to the semi-finals of the Nations Cup, while the top three went through to the third round of World Cup qualifying.

The six sides still standing were then split into two groups, with home and away matches held between them. The two group winners advanced to the OFC final, a two-legged tie that would send the victor through to the inter-confederation play-offs. In qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, New Zealand beat the Solomon Islands 8-3 on aggregate.

The OFC has had to compromise ahead of Qatar following the cancellation of the Nations Cup last year. The scheduling of the 2022 World Cup in November and December rather than June and July has helped many confederations out of a hole, and Oceania is no exception.

FIFA has created extra international dates in January and February, and this is when the OFC plans to hold a mini-tournament to determine which side goes through to the play-offs in June.

As things stand, the official plan is for the 11 participating nations to be split into two groups – one with five teams, the other with six. The top two in each group will progress to the second round, where they will contest semi-finals and then a final.

However, rumours abound of the entire process being moved to the Middle East, which would surely result in a more streamlined format. It is certainly hard to see how the OFC could go ahead with its original plan for two-legged, home-and-away semi-finals and final in the current climate. A final decision is expected soon.

Kiwis Fancied to win Oceania Competition

Whatever the precise details, New Zealand are once again the heavy favourites with the bookmakers to win the Oceania competition. Only once since Australia left the region for Asia have the All Whites failed to win the Nations Cup.

They were the continent’s representative in the inter-confederation play-offs for World Cup qualifying in 2010, 2014 and 2018; in 2006, it was Australia. Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tahiti and New Caledonia will hope to go far in the qualifying tournament, but none have the strength to get past New Zealand.

The real test, as ever, will come in the play-offs. Much will depend on the draw: the Oceania victors will play one of the fourth-best team from CONCACAF, the fifth-best from CONMEBOL or the fifth-best from Asia.

It is too early to predict with any accuracy who that might be, but Canada, Costa Rica or Panama are possibilities from North America, Central America and the Caribbean; Saudi Arabia, China, the United Arab Emirates or Iraq could be Asia’s candidate; and the list of South American contenders includes Peru, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.

Of those above names, New Zealand will want to avoid a South American opponent the most. A team from CONCACAF or AFC looks most beatable, but much will depend on which side actually makes the play-offs. Indeed, New Zealand were stung on the road to Brazil 2014 by having to face a strong Mexican side that had surprisingly underachieved in the CONCACAF campaign.

It can be difficult to make cross-confederation comparisons, particularly when we are dealing with sides who only occasionally appear at the World Cup. This is where the FIFA Rankings can give an indication – albeit an incomplete one – of the relative strength of sides across the world.

New Zealand sit 119th in the latest edition. No team they are likely to face in the inter-confederation play-offs is outside the top 100. The best-case scenario using the FIFA Rankings system would perhaps be a tie with Panama (74), China (71), Iraq (70) or the United Arab Emirates (68). The worst would be Colombia (15), Chile (20) or Peru (22).

It is clear, then, that the draw for the play-offs will play a huge role in determining New Zealand’s fate. The Oceania hurdle of World Cup qualifying should be cleared without too many problems, but the All Whites will be underdogs no matter who they face in that all-or-nothing intercontinental tussle.