By far the smallest and least prestigious of FIFA’s six confederations, Oceania’s 11 teams – mostly from tiny island nations in the Pacific – compete for just 0.5 qualifying places in the World Cup, with the winner of the process having to play off against South America’s fifth-best team for the right to reach Russia.
This perhaps explains why Oceania has only ever had two representatives at World Cups – Australia in 1974 and 2006 (before the Socceroos left to join the more competitive Asian confederation) and New Zealand, who played in the 1982 and 2010 editions.
For Russia 2018, the confederation’s seven top teams – Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu – were given byes to the second group phase, while American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga fought it out in a six-game group phase for the right to be the eighth team in the next round. Samoa ultimately advanced on goal difference.
The second group phase – which also doubled up as qualification for the OFC Nations Cup – saw eight narrowed down to six, before a third round – this time played in a home and away format – left us with just two contenders remaining: New Zealand and Solomon Islands.
Since Australia left the OFC in 2006, the All Whites have been by far the confederation’s strongest team, qualifying for the World Cup in 2010 and winning the OFC Nations Cup in 2008 and 2016. The latter victory saw the side gain entry for this summer’s Confederations Cup in Russia, where they finished bottom of a group containing Portugal, Russia and Mexico. Captained by last season’s Championship top scorer Chris Wood and bolstered by West Ham defender Winston Reid, New Zealand are hampered by the weak opposition they face in Oceania qualifying when it comes to facing the big boys, although draws against Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia ensured they were the only unbeaten side in South Africa in 2010.
The All Whites have advanced through the three preliminary stages of qualifying and will face the Solomon Islands in September in order to be crowned their continent’s representative. Even if, as is highly likely, they do emerge victorious, they will still have another two matches to play – against Uruguay, Chile, Argentina or Ecuador – before they can even think about booking plane tickets to Moscow.
Given the Solomon Islands only entered the World Cup for the first time in 1994, the fact that, with less than a year to go, they still have an outside chance of qualifying for Russia is truly remarkable. Representing a country of just 642,000 people, where rugby union is the national sport, the Bonitos have recorded notable results over the past decade, drawing with Australia and New Zealand and defeating 2012 OFC Nations Cup winners Tahiti. Even so, with only two players plying their trade abroad, the prospect of Solomon Islands playing at the World Cup next summer seems next to impossible – if New Zealand don’t see to that, one of the CONMEBOL big boys will.