Cook Islands Football Association is wary of the looming fixture against giants New Zealand All Whites in the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers which starts next year.
According to Stuff, the All Whites are set to face at least one Oceania minnow, if not two, when the qualifiers begin in March.
New Zealand, ranked 122nd in the world, will therefore potentially have to play one or two of American Samoa, ranked 192nd; Samoa, ranked 194th; Tonga, ranked 203rd; and the Cook Islands, who aren’t ranked at all.
The All Whites are likely to give these minnows a thrashing in a one-sided affair.
Lee Harmon, president of Cook Islands Football Association, has labelled the proposed fixture “crazy”.
“If we are drawn to play the New Zealand All Whites in our first game for the World Cup qualifier it will be very, very tough. It is a crazy draw and does no good for football,” Harmon said.
“I thought Oceania Football will do what’s been done in the past where the lower ranked four teams will player each other with the winner progressing to play against the stronger nations in the next stage.”
In recent times in men’s football, the 11 Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) nations have typically been split into a stronger group of seven – New Zealand, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea – and a weaker group of four – American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, and the Cook Islands.
However, under a proposal submitted to Fifa and made public on Monday, teams are set to take part in the first stage of World Cup qualifying.
They will be split into a group of six and a group of five, based on their Fifa rankings, with group stage matches to be played in March and June 2021.
With no Fifa ranking due to lack of international matches, Cook Islands could easily be pooled with the top ranked side, the All Whites, in the qualifiers.
Harmon explained: “In terms of not being ranked this is not a big issue and is because we did not play in the Pacific Games last year and the reason for that is the high cost of sending two teams to the games based on the ranking policy by CISNOC.”
“On top of this we didn’t host the Oceania Cup qualifiers in the third week of March this year due to Covid-19.”
However, Harmon said Cook Islands played three club sides in Auckland in October last year as part of their preparations for the tournament in March this year.
“But this didn’t contribute to the Fifa ranking as these matches were not against a national team.”
Following the preliminary rounds of the Word Cup qualifier, the top two teams from each group will advance to the semifinals, which will be contested on a home-and-away basis next September, with the winners advancing to the finals, which will be contested on a home-and-away basis the following month.
Whichever team comes out on top will then have the November and March windows to prepare for the intercontinental home-and-away playoff the top Oceania team must win in June 2022 to book their place at the World Cup in Qatar, scheduled for November and December that year.
Fifa is yet to determine where the Oceania team’s opponent will come from, with the fifth-placed Asian team, the fifth-place South American team, or the fourth-placed North and Central American team the three possible options.
- Additional reporting from Stuff