The All Whites will have to beat the fourth-placed team from North and Central America and the Caribbean to make it to next year’s World Cup.
The All Whites will have to beat the fourth-best team from North and Central America and the Caribbean in a one-off match next June to make it to the Fifa World Cup in Qatar in November.
But there is still no clarity from the Oceania Football Confederation as to what regional qualifying will look like and there are fears the final outcome might throw up serious obstacles for New Zealand national men’s football team as they strive to make the intercontinental playoffs.
The draw for the playoffs was made by Fifa on Friday [Saturday NZ time], pitting the best team from Oceania against the fourth from Concacaf and the fifth-placed teams from Asia and South America against each other.
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The format for regional qualifying, set to take place in Qatar in March, is set to be confirmed ahead of the draw for it, which Fifa has set down for Monday [Tuesday 9am NZ time].
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NZ Football chief executive Andrew Pragnell told Stuff that while discussions were ongoing, he had heard there was opposition to extending the March international window – the period where players have to be made available by their clubs – to incorporate a full qualifying tournament.
He said that if a full extension, from nine days to at least 16, was not possible, NZ Football’s preference would be to extend the window by one day, as has been done for several confederations in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and play three knockout rounds to go from eight teams to one.
The alternative would be to have qualifying begin before the start of the window on March 22. That would disproportionately affect the All Whites, whose wider squad consists almost entirely of players at professional clubs, unlike their rivals’. While most, if not all, of the players would be eager to leave early to help the pursuit of the country’s third appearance at a men’s World Cup, their coaches and managers would have the final say.
OFC’s executive committee, which contains representatives from across the region, including NZ Football president Johanna Wood, is set to make the final decision in the coming days. It is understood there are concerns from other countries in the region about travelling to Qatar and potentially only playing once.
Pragnell said NZ Football was hopeful all matches would be played inside the window and had made its position clear, but would ready to adapt if it was forced to deal with the challenges of getting players released outside of one.
“If that’s how the format lands, I could only say that that would obviously be a disappointing result, but then how that’s actually managed and how the days of that tournament are scheduled becomes really critical. The expectation should be of course that the vast majority of it falls inside the window.
“If it were to be that, it would be another case of playing with the cards that we’re dealt, but they would be pretty average cards in my opinion.”
The All Whites have qualified for the intercontinental playoffs out of Oceania in each of the three World Cup cycles since Australia left the region in 2006.
In 2009, they beat Bahrain to make it to the World Cup in South Africa the following year, while in 2013 and 2017 they suffered losses to Mexico and Peru in matchups where they were heavy underdogs.
At the end of the November international window, Panama were in fourth in Concacaf on 14 points, behind Mexico only on goal difference. The United States were second on 15 points, while Canada were out front on 16. Fifth-placed Costa Rica were five points behind Panama and there are six matchdays to come – three in January and three in March.
Fifa announced last week that the playoffs would not be contested on a home-and-away basis ahead of the 2022 World Cup, and would instead be played as one-off matches at neutral venues. It was confirmed at the draw that those matches will be played in Qatar on June 13 and 14.
Temperatures in the Middle Eastern nation in June tend to range between 27 deg C and 41 deg C, so the matches are set to be a test of the country’s air-conditioned stadiums, which reportedly bring temperatures down to 21 deg C. The World Cup was moved from its usual June date to November and December next year as a result of the expected heat.
They are hoping to play a pair of friendlies in January as they finalise their preparations for World Cup qualifying.