Tournament organisers face difficult decisions as they consider how the Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifiers will be affected by the unplanned exit of Vanuatu and the likelihood that Cook Islands will also have to withdraw.
Under competition rules, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee has wide powers to decide what happens to the format for the rest of the eight-nation tournament.
Their decision is almost certain to influence who the All Whites will meet in the semi-finals, providing they qualify from their group.
What’s happened so far
Group A has been left in disarray after positive COVID tests have left Vanuatu and Cook Islands unable to field the 14 eligible players required for a fixture to go ahead.
More than half the Vanuatu squad tested positive shortly before their bus was to take them to the stadium for their opening game against Tahiti.
FIFA and Oceania Football Confederation have since decided they will treat the game as “abandoned”.
Vanuatu, facing seven days of isolation, realised they would be unable to play their second game (against Solomon Islands), and withdrew from the tournament.
Cook Islands, who lost 2-0 to Solomon Islands on opening day, informed the organisers they had multiple cases of COVID and would be unable to play Tahiti on Monday (NZT).
Officially, that game is considered to be “postponed” until OCF and FIFA make a ruling. Given their decision on the Vanuatu-Tahiti match, it’s expected the status will change to “abandoned”.
The implications of an abandoned match
The FIFA World Cup regulations state that any association that withdraws after the start of qualifiers faces a minimum fine of $40,000 Swiss (which is about NZ$62,000).
Chances are the Vanuatu and Cook Islands national bodies are urging FIFA to treat the unplayed games as “abandoned”, arguing their decisions were out of their control. This would remove the risks of substantial fines.
Competition rules say FIFA can “take whatever action is deemed necessary”.
As it’s clear none of the unplayed fixtures will be replayed, FIFA face a difficult decision for how to determine the final placings in Group A.
Solomon Islands are the only team to have won a game — should that give them an advantage?
Tahiti have been unable to play either of their first two opponents through no fault of their own — should they receive six points for wins-by-default?
If organisers treated this tournament the same as, say, a Lotto NRFL game, Tahiti would be awarded two 3-0 wins.
Solomon Islands would get one 3-0 default win but would have a worse goal difference than Tahiti going into their final group game because of their 2-0 win against the Cook Islands.
And that would hardly be fair.
One option would be to rule the match between Tahiti and Solomon Islands scheduled for Friday morning (NZT) becomes a one-off result that decides first and second place in the group.
It’s possible consideration has been given to getting the two countries to play each other twice, turning the group into a two-legged decider.
In the semi-finals, the winner of the group plays the runners-up from Group B; the losers play the winners from Group B.
Impact on the All Whites
The decisions made by FIFA will determine who New Zealand might play in a semi-final and how well prepared they would be.
It’s possible the All Whites could face a Tahiti side that’s played only one match at the tournament.
Whether that would give Tahiti an advantage is a moot point; they might be fresher but they would lack match practice.
Solomon Islands would have played at least two games.
All Whites head coach Danny Hay acknowledged the situation to Stuff football writer Phillip Rollo:
“It’s a concern what is happening on the other side of the draw and ultimately the decision makers at FIFA and OFC have to come up with something that will be fair for all teams, but that’s for them to decide, we’re just working on our jobs at the moment and controlling what we can control.”
‘Never has it been easy, or straightforward, to qualify …’
In the end, regardless of what transpires from FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee review, New Zealand’s World Cup hopes will ultimately be determined on the pitch.
The 2022 World Cup campaign is New Zealand’s 14th since the first competition in 1930.
Never has it been easy, or straightforward, to qualify for the finals.
Coping with off-the-pitch decisions is all part of the journey.