26 Jul 2015

NZ's football World Cup hopes take a hit

1:40 pm on 26 July 2015

The All Whites' road to the 2018 World Cup has been made steeper by the draw for the intercontinental qualifying playoffs.

All Whites captain Winston Reid.

All Whites captain Winston Reid. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The draw, made in Russia on Sunday morning, pits the winners of the Oceania group against the fifth-placed side in the South American conference in a playoff to reach the finals in Russia.

In the other playoff tie, the team which finishes fourth in the CONCACAF competition will face the fifth-placed team from Asia.

Both ties will be played over two legs.

Uruguay have finished fifth in the last four South American World Cup qualifying competitions and taken part in an intercontinental playoff each time.

They beat Australia in 2001, lost to them four years later, beat Costa Rica in 2009 and Jordan in 2013.

With Australia having shifted into the Asia qualifying competition in 2006, New Zealand, who qualified for the 1982 and 2010 World Cups, are firm favourites to win the Oceania group.

They will face Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji in the second stage of the Oceania zone, with the top three teams in the group qualifying for the third round.

The third round consists of two groups of three and the winners of each meet in a two-leg final.

Vanuatu's Brian Kaltack fighting for possession against the All Whites.

Vanuatu's Brian Kaltack fighting for possession against the All Whites. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

FIFA put its problems to one side and began the countdown to the 2018 tournament when Russian president Vladimir Putin and FIFA chief Sepp Blatter re-assured the nation the tournament would go ahead as planned.

A glitzy preliminary-round draw ceremony was beamed live to 170 countries around the world, sending a powerful message that the finals would take place no matter what enquiries are going on over alleged voting irregularities which secured Russia the hosting rights five years ago.

Blatter confirmed that Russia would stage the tournament, saying that the FIFA executive committee had "full trust and confidence". Putin told the global audience that "Russia will be fantastic hosts."

Putin also pledged to host a World Cup -- in a country where racism is rife at soccer matches -- promising both domestic and foreign players and fans would feel at home at a "grandiose international sporting festival".

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: AFP

All 209 FIFA members registered to take part in the finals, and although 22 teams have already been eliminated, 851 matches will be played over the next 32 months to establish the 31 teams who will join Russia at the tournament in June 2018.

World champions Germany were handed a kind draw when they were placed in the same group as the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

There was ironic laughter when Oliver Bierhoff, the general manager of the German national team, drew his country out of the bowl.

"I'm pleased we avoided Spain or Italy, but I am sure all the top teams will go through," Bierhoff said.

Spain and Italy, the previous World Cup winners before Germany, were drawn together while the Netherlands and France, two other European powerhouses, were also placed in the same group.

That was partly because UEFA, European soccer's governing body which is looking to increase revenue from TV and other commercial marketing opportunities, decided to place their top six ranked teams in six-team groups rather than five so they play extra matches.

Slight manipulation of the draw was needed to ensure that happened, but even though they might have tougher qualifiers than usual, they should all qualify because the second-placed team in each group will take part in seeded playoffs.

Among some of the more eye-catching European pairings was England being drawn with Scotland, the old rivals who played the world's first international in 1872.

Cameroon, the first African country to make a major impact in the World Cup when they reached the quarter-finals in 1990, must negotiate a tricky two-leg knockout tie against Somalia or Niger at the start of their campaign.

South Sudan, who joined FIFA in 2012, will face Mauritania in their first-ever qualifier. The winners play Tunisia in the second round.

African champions Ivory Coast, seeking a fourth successive finals appearance, will play Liberia or Guinea-Bissau.

Angola will meet South Africa in arguably the toughest of the second-round meetings.

The qualifying competition, already underway in Asia and the CONCACAF zone, will end globally in November 2017.

Sepp Blatter has called time on a long FIFA career.

Sepp Blatter has called time on a long FIFA career. Photo: AFP

When it boils down to it, making a draw for a major soccer tournament involves little more than pulling balls out of plastic pots.

But, around that apparently simple act, FIFA has managed to build a two-day event featuring a banquet in a palace, a high-level security operation and a glitzy extravaganza.

Saturday's draw in St Petersburg, two hours long and featuring various musical interludes, was typical of the opulence that soccer's governing body and its leaders have been increasingly criticised for.

Delegations from around 150 national football associations attended the draw, FIFA officials said, although each federation had to pay their own way.

After being fast-tracked through immigration they were accommodated in some of St Petersburg's most lavish hotels.

On the eve of the draw they were treated to a banquet at the Mikhailovsky Palace, the spectacular Neoclassical main building of the Russian museum in the city centre.

The nearby square was cordoned off to traffic and guests entered through airport-style security.

Saturday's draw took place in similarly impressive surroundings at the Konstantin Palace set in stunning grounds on the Gulf of Finland.

President Vladimir Putin, whose presence necessitated another security operation, gave the opening address to the 2,000 guests and a global television audience that FIFA estimates put at 94 million in around 170 countries.

Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova co-hosted the show and illustrious figures such as former Soviet Union goalkeeper Rinat Dasayev, former Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o and former World Player of the Year Ronaldo helped pluck the balls from the pots.

Until the late 1980s FIFA draw ceremonies were relatively low-key affairs.

The draw for the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, modelled on the domestic lottery at the time, became notorious for a series of mix-ups.

FIFA officials, including current president Sepp Blatter, apparently forget the procedure. Teams were placed in the wrong groups and had to be put back and drawn out again, the tombolas containing the balls broke and the balls themselves jammed.

But the trend changed with the 1994 World Cup qualifying draw in Las Vegas. When FIFA realised the potential income that could be generated by beaming the ceremonies around the globe there was no turning back.