The eight-nation Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament has been tipped on its head with the likely early departure of two teams.
Vanuatu have confirmed their withdrawal from the two-week tournament in Qatar without playing a game.
It also looks likely that the Cook Islands team will also be forced to exit early after saying a “high number” of their players have tested positive for COVID and they will be unable to field a team against Tahiti on Monday (NZT).
Tournament organisers Oceania Football Confederation have confirmed that Match Day 3 of the tournament will not go ahead on Monday.
Vanuatu could not field a team against Tahiti in their opening day match, when most of their players got positive results from rapid antigens tests as they prepared to leave their team hotel for the stadium.
Tournament regulations say a team must have 14 eligible players for a game to proceed.
Oceania Football Confederation and FIFA were to decide what would happen in terms of the team’s scheduled games but the Vanuatu Football Federation pre-empted a decision, saying they would withdraw.
The statement said their players would have to isolate for seven days under local regulations and the VFF could not fly in replacement players in time for Monday’s match against the Solomon Islands.
VFF President Lambert Maltock told Vanuatu Broadcasting Television Corporation that players who had tested positive could have completed their isolation period ahead of their last scheduled game but only the night before.
The VFF Executive Committee will ask OFC and FIFA if they can waive disciplinary sanctions for the withdrawal of the team as Vanuatu faced a situation beyond their control.
Meanwhile, the Cook Islands Football Association stated: “Due to the high number of players who tested positive for Covid, we will not be able to field a team for our match against Tahiti on Sunday 20 March 2022”.
How this leaves Group A
If Vanuatu and Cook Islands exit early, it leaves Tahiti and Solomon Islands as the only remaining participants in Group A.
Solomon Islands beat Cook Islands 2-0 in their opening game and, barring further problems with COVID, still have to play Tahiti on Thursday (NZT).
As the top two teams in the Group, they would go forward to play sudden-death semi-finals against the top two sides from Group B, which includes New Zealand.
OFC’s statement in full
“The Oceania Football Confederation can confirm that due to a number of positive cases of COVID-19 in the Vanuatu and Cook Islands squads, Match Day 3 of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Oceania Qualifiers will not go ahead.
“As a result of the vast majority of the squad testing positive to COVID-19, Vanuatu have informed FIFA of their withdrawal from the tournament.
“In addition to the Vanuatu withdrawal there are a number of Cook Islands players who have tested positive to COVID-19 and they can not field a team on Match Day 3.
“Cook Islands had been scheduled to play Tahiti on March 20 and Vanuatu had been schedule to play the Solomon Islands on March 20.
“The Vanuatu decision follows tests conducted on March 17, 2022 that revealed positive cases of COVID-19 in the majority of Vanuatu’s team, ahead of their match against Tahiti in Doha.
“In line with the applicable protocol and given the seven-day quarantine requirement, the Vanuatu Football Federation has confirmed to FIFA that it’s not in a position to play its upcoming FIFA World Cup qualification matches.
FIFA has forwarded the relevant details to its Disciplinary Committee.
Until further notice, Vanuatu’s FIFA World Cup qualification matches are deemed to be abandoned.”