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Oceania World Cup Qualifying: The Stretch Run

Monday 4th September 2017
Russia 2018 is only months away. Before the New Year, all 32 participants will be known. Here's how Oceania World Cup qualifying has panned out.

Quick. Off the top of your head, name the Oceania Football Confederation members. If you don't live in the South Pacific, it will be tricky. Rugby is the dominant sport among the island nations flanking Australia's eastern coast. American football attracts young Samoan athletes. What you and I might term proper football isn't so popular in the region. Australia deserted the confederation in 2006, seeking stronger competition in Asia.

That leaves one team supporters who live in the AFC, CAF, Concacaf, Conmebol, or UEFA's jurisdiction will know as an OFC member: New Zealand. In total, there are 20. Only 11 are FIFA members involved in World Cup qualifying, however. The remaining ten in that group are American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

The four lowest-ranked teams from the eleven were American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga. The quartet played a round-robin in August and September, 2015. Samoa emerged the winner.
The Samoans joined the top seven teams in Round 2, which took place from May to June, 2016. Two four-nation groups played round-robins with double goals in mind. Group winners and runners-up paired off for Confederations Cup entry. New Zealand predictably claimed the honour. As well, the top three teams in each group moved on to Round 3. Samoa and Vanuatu bowed out.

Two groups of three were drawn for another duet of round-robins. The first two matches in each group were played in November, 2016. The other pair took place in March, 2017. Here is how the two groups concluded.

OFC Round 3 Final Group Standings

New Zealand and the Solomon Islands' triumphs pitted them against one another in a two-legged tie scheduled to take place in the current international window. Betting on the Solomons wouldn't have been, shall we say, wise?

New Zealand came into the match without captain Winston Reid. The West Ham defender has a calf problem. Instead, Burnley forward Chris Wood donned the armband.

Wood headed into the international week in appropriate fashion. The Clarets visited Wembley to take on Spurs in the Premier League. With his side a goal down in second-half stoppage time, Woods snuck down the left flank on a counter attack. He was first to Robbie Brady's long diagonal ball, quickly sending a right-footed volley beyond Hugo Lloris and inside the far post.

The long trip down to Auckland failed to affect the striker in negative fashion. He bagged a hattrick against the nervous Bonitos, who struggled with their footing under the bright lights on the North Island's neck.
The return leg in Honiara seems a formality. Unless Hades undergoes an unexpected Antarctic freeze, the All Whites will face the fifth-place finisher in Conmebol World Cup qualifying.

At the moment, that is Argentina. The Kiwis would be underdogs against any South American side, including bottom table Venezuela. Yet Peru, Ecuador, or Paraguay would be infinitely preferable to Lionel Messi and cohorts or Alexis Sanchez's Chileans.

When the OFC playoff second leg concludes just as UK readers are fumbling for their alarm clock at 6am tomorrow morning, Chris Wood and his mates will celebrate clearing another hurdle. In November, it's more likely they'll discover how Samoa felt last year.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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