Becalmed in the Pacific; Football’s forgotten frontier
When you think of the roots of South American footballing success, the same familiar images spring to mind; ad hoc games amongst the favelas of Brazil, or in the streets of Buenos Aires. An easy familiarity with the round ball born of a lifelong association. If we were to follow that logic than many of the Island nations of the Pacific would be bastions of footballing success, for the streets of Port Villa or Noumea are little different in that regard. In many of the former European colonies of the Pacific, football is king.
Yet these nations are traditionally the laughing stock of international football. However, after New Zealand (ranked 100 in the world) were stunningly dumped out in the Oceania Nations Cup semi finals by New Caledonia (ranked 155), who were in turn trumped by Tahiti (ranked 179) in the final, a brand new competitor is about to make its first steps into the international arena proper. Is it too much to hope that this might herald a new dawn for Pacific football?
The transition from colonial possessions to independent states has been a hard one for most Pacific nations. With little in the way of natural resources, and largely reliant on tourism and remittances to drive local economies, most languish in conditions that are officially regarded as Third World. In this environment, sport naturally offers opportunities that are otherwise difficult to find. Amongst the Polynesian nations such as Samoa and Tonga, Rugby and American Football are the obvious outlets, with those nations consistently producing professional athletes in both sports. Yet amongst the Melanesian nations such as Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji, the more popular football code has rarely provided similar opportunities. One obvious exception is Christian Karembeu, but otherwise few players have enjoyed professional careers from these regions.
The lack of local sporting infrastructure is one of the main causes behind this discrepancy. Karembeu largely owed his career success to his familial links with France (and no little amount of ability, it must be said). With only local amateur leagues with extremely few links to clubs overseas, and national teams who mostly ply their trade in obscure competitions, there is little opportunity for footballers to be noticed.
It also hurts that the largest neighbour, Australia, has only recently developed a professional league, the A-League, but its strict restrictions on foreign player numbers means opportunities are even more limited than they were back in the days of the Semi-Professional NSL competition.
The inevitable consequence is that Pacific football has barely progressed since the formation of the Oceania Football Confederation back in 1966. In fact it would be fair to say it has not progressed at all. For decades the confederation was dominated by Australia, who routinely hammered the Pacific nations in World Cup qualifying before bowing out against more experienced opposition in the knock out stages. After extended petitioning of FIFA, the OFC was granted a full qualifying spot for World Cup qualification, up from its existing half spot in 2003. Only a few months later the half spot was unceremoniously stripped from the OFC and handed back to CONMEBOL. In response after extended negotiations, Australia secured a switch to the Asian confederation in 2005, where it felt that World Cup qualification was a more realistic proposition.
Shorn of its strongest team, the OFC surprisingly responded strongly. After Australia participated in the 2006 World Cup as Oceania champions defeating Uruguay in a two legged knock-out, New Zealand followed them in 2010 after similarly overcoming Bahrain. Tipped to struggle badly, the All Whites actually finished the tournament unbeaten, a stunning result that reflected well on the confederation. Yet these successes hid the continued lack of progression by the other member nations, as reflected by New Zealand’s dominance of the OFC qualification process.
The recent upset result that saw New Zealand dumped out of the Oceania Nations Cup offers hope for a new level of competitiveness in the region, but the only realistic conclusion that can be drawn is that the region’s representative in Brazil next year, Tahiti, is going to be horribly exposed on the international stage.
What hope then exists for the development of Pacific football? The obvious answer is to grant the confederation a full World Cup qualifying spot in the expectation that consistent exposure on the worlds biggest sporting stage will attract the sort of local investment that the region so desperately requires. However the simple truth is that the OFC lacks the political clout to engineer such a coup. Nor does the quality of football on show in the region currently deserve a full qualifying spot. The other possibility is the simple dissolution of the confederation altogether in favour of following Australia into Asia, where qualifying spots are more plentiful. But with the Asian federation over-bloated as it is, such a move would necessitate a complete re-organisation in the region that the current FIFA regime would be loath to contemplate.
One other option is for the region to organise a combined Nations club team to compete in the Australian A-League. The concept is not as far fetched as it might sound; Australia already accepts a foreign team in its national competition, the Wellington Phoenix, and the idea of a combined Pacific team is one that has long been championed in Rugby circles. Yet the idea is fraught with logistical complications; where would ‘home games’ be played, and who would pay the exorbitant travel expenses involved? One solution would be to base the team within Australia or New Zealand and hope for the local expatriate population to provide support, but such compromise solutions are hardly likely to generate much enthusiasm nor financial backing.
Unfortunately no easy solution to the problem exists; if one did then surely the region would not have been allowed to stagnate for as long as it has. The Pacific is a reservoir of footballing talent, that fact cannot be disputed. The problem is how to develop and exploit that potential. With the member nations of the OFC unable to undertake the task themselves they must hope for outside intervention. With FIFA having proven such a disappointment to the confederation so many times in the past the only hope lies in investment from some other quarter. Whilst the region continues to wait for a knight in shining armour to come to rescue it from its seemingly terminal malaise, the rest of the world, we imagine, will look on with a mixture of bemusement and pity come the Confederations Cup next year.