Oceania Preview: Can anyone stop the Kiwis?
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- Literally in the backwaters of the world, Oceania is as close to total obscurity as it gets for soccer and as far away from Rio as could be imagined. New Zealand spent nearly a generation further obscured behind Australia, coming up short in regional qualifying in fruitless bids to make its first World Cup appearance since 1982.
The Kiwis, though, were the primary beneficiary of Australia's departure to the Asia Football Confederation for 2010 qualifying and advanced to South Africa by the razor-thinnest of margins - a 1-0 aggregate victory over Bahrain in a two-legged playoff.
Once securely in the field of 32, New Zealand made it a point - earning three - to prove it belonged on the global stage. The All Whites finished third in their group, ahead of 2006 champion Italy, and drew all three of their matches after also finishing level versus Slovakia and Paraguay.
Clearly now the biggest fish in the pond that is the Pacific Ocean, the challenge for New Zealand comes from building off its World Cup appearance to make it in back-to-back tournaments.
The All Whites face two logistical challenges in becoming a better soccer country, and both have aspects not totally in their control. One is the lack of quality teams in their region.
There are 11 members in Oceania, very few which can be labeled legitimate challengers. New Zealand won all five of its meaningful qualifying matches with a plus-11 goal differential to secure Oceania's half-berth, but the more damning evidence is the three countries that joined the Kiwis in the final round-robin had a cumulative goal differential of plus-49. That number could have been substantially higher had the Solomon Islands - and not New Caledonia - finished third.
The second issue is scheduling international friendlies. While Australia is a natural archrival, easy to put on the schedule and a burgeoning regional soccer power - any Kiwi must begrudgingly admit the Socceroos are doing quite well for themselves in Asia - there are very few countries willing to travel to Auckland, so there is a premium in finding quality opponents.
Coach Ricki Hebert has been pro-active in addressing this problem, and some lumps have been absorbed. In June, the Kiwis played Mexico and Australia in a three-day span that included a 30-hour flight from Denver to Adelaide. The identical 3-0 losses absorbed by an injury-riddled and obviously fatigued squad hid the fact Hebert got longer looks at younger players Chris Wood, Michael Boxall, Winston Reid and Michael McGlinchey - all of whom will play key roles in this qualifying cycle.
With youth also comes optimism below the senior squad. The U-20 team is currently playing in the World Cup in Colombia, while the U-17 squad reached the knockout round in Mexico this summer, losing to Japan in the round of 16.
The lone potential obstacle for the All Whites could be Fiji. Not much stock can be taken from New Zealand's 2-0 road loss in a meaningless qualifier to cap the 2010 cycle, but the two squads are in the same semifinal group for the eight-team OFC Nations Cup that will award a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup.
The top two finishers from each group will then comprise the final-round group, with the champion earning a two-legged playoff versus the fourth-place team from the CONCACAF region - arguably the weakest potential opponent among the three other federations also awarded half-berths.
The road to Rio appears there for the taking for New Zealand. The only issue is whether the All Whites will once again get past that last checkpoint.
Updated August 5, 2011