Opinion: What the OFC Nations League could look like

The proposal of an OFC Nations League came in the summer of last year. And it happened with little fanfare.

Nations LEague
The OFC Nations League has been proposed. But will it ever happen, and what will it look like? (Photo credit: Football in Oceania)

In a Youtube video to be precise. Just mentioned casually, amongst several other things, in a strategy plan for the period of 2019 and 2026.

Since then, it’s been completely silent. All we know is that it is, hopefully, at some point, happening.

Humour me for a minute, dear reader, and join me on a little exercise in what the OFC Nations League could look like.

So how do you divide up the tournament?

Do you go at it in the same style as the other two Nations Leagues do, and put groups together based on nations coefficient and have the top three teams in the region play each other home and away?

It could look a little like this:

Proposal 2
(Photo credit: Football in Oceania)

Or perhaps even better, for development of the smaller nations, you make it like this:

Proposal 1
(Photo credit: Football in Oceania)

That way, one of the smallest teams would always be in a group where they would play better teams.

Alternatively, you could make it look a little something like what the South American World Cup qualifiers look like. One big group where everyone plays everyone twice. That gives the OFC nations twenty games in total, divided that over two calendar years and you have something quite cool.

A matter of numbers

Perhaps a hybrid is more realistic. The OFC has 11 members, right now. They may or may not have a few associate members, but it doesn’t seem even the OFC themselves know how many they have (read this excellent guest piece for more on that matter).

That number, 11, doesn’t easily divide itself into a nice even set of groups if you go the smaller route. Sure, it works for the Champions League and the Nations Cup, but those have the advantage of having a small qualifying stage, making it easier to divide up the actual competition later on.

So if you really want groups, maybe you divide the Nations League into two bigger groups. The top one consisting of the five best teams, the second one of the remaining six. Most of you know that the gap between the best and the second-best are large in this region.

But for the “usual suspects” at the bottom, American Samoa, Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga, playing the better teams like for example Tahiti and Vanuatu on a more regular basis would be good for their development, surely?

At the end of this imaginary two-grouped tournament, you could have the top two from the lower tier go up to the top and the two bottom ones there, go down. In the top group, the winner would simply be the team coming out on top. The OFC isn’t really big enough to include a playoff in a tournament like this.

Associate members?

Then you have the associate members mentioned earlier. This is the OFC, who almost refuse to acknowledge they exist, so chances of them actually appearing in this are about as close to zero as you can get.

But let’s go down this rabbit hole too, while we’re here.

If you include either one or three associate members, you could easily solve the problem of the uneven groups. Tuvalu have played international football as recently as last summer’s Pacific Games. Kiribati have an active football community, sources on the island have told me, even having a league system in place. So I’m sure they could stack up a squad of 20 or so, if asked.

CONIFA World Football Cup 2018 - Tuvalu flag
Tuvalu posing ahead of their game against Szekely Land in the CONIFA World Football Cup 2018 in London (Photo credit: Con Chronis)

The odd one out here is Niue, where no one really knows what’s happening on the island. Let’s assume there’s not being played any football.

So that leaves at least one associate member able to play if you want it even. What if both Tuvalu and Kiribati wanted to play? If the hybrid version I concocted up was to happen, there’s no reason the top group couldn’t be expanded to six while the bottom one contained seven teams. Or if you went with the South America WCQ route, it would hardly mean a difference.

To be honest with you dear reader, I would like for Tuvalu and Kiribati to be in the Nations League, but that is very unlikely to happen.

Home and away or host?

Then comes the biggest question of them all. How do you make it happen? A home and away game against everyone else? Nations taking turns hosting one matchday? In Oceania, travel expenses are the biggest issue for all the smaller teams, and perhaps even some of the bigger nations. There are big distances and airfare could often be an arm and a leg. But with FIFA pumping more money into the confederations to have national teams play more, you would assume their travel budget increases as well.

If you have the likes of Tuvalu and Kiribati enter, then they clearly can’t play at home. This has been their big stumbling block in being admitted as actual members (that and some lovely football politics, I refer you back to this guest post for more on that). For Tuvalu, Fiji is the only likely destination, and they’ve admitted that would be their preferred place to play games to me before. Gibraltar plays their home games in Portugal, so why not Tuvalu in Fiji? Kiribati could also use Fiji as their home ground.

But I think the most likely option, if they were to do it this way, would be to have one nation host an entire matchday for the group, maybe even two, as matches in FIFA windows come with three- or four-day intervals. The Oceania Champions League and qualifiers have one group hosted in one location, the same goes for the qualifiers to the various Nations Cup, so there is proof that that option works.

What about the women?

One of the things the OFC should rightly pride themselves on is their activity on the women’s side of the game. It is great.

The last edition of the women’s Nations Cup (which this website covered extensively, all of that can be found here) in 2018 was a joy to watch. And at the 2019 OFC Under-16 Championship, all 11 member associations took part in the competition proper.

Nasau
Cema Nasau of Fiji in action against Lee Maoate-Cox of the Cook Islands at the 2018 OFC Women’s Nations Cup (Photo credit: OFC Media)

So could a Nations League for women also be made? There are clearly grounds for it in member activity and in an ideal world, it should be made. But as always the question would come down to money.

For as little money as the OFC seem to have, I don’t think a Nations League including the women would be doable, at least not for now. It would be very cool though, to see the men and women play at the same time, perhaps one women and men’s game back to back. One can only dream, dear reader.

What’s in it for the big fish?

Another issue is what it would be worth for the likes of New Zealand, on the top of the Oceania football ladder. In Europe a win in either of the four tiers grants the winner a place in the European Championship, that’s a huge thing for some of the smaller sides and even the middle-of-the-pack sides.

The same goes for the North American one, where a place in the regional Gold Cup tournament awaits the winner.

But Oceania isn’t really big enough for that to be feasible as a reward, where everyone bar the four weakest sides have “always” been automatically qualified anyways.

So what would entice a team like New Zealand, to do their best? When the All Whites can’t even be bothered to send their strongest side to the OFC Nations Cup this summer and instead uses it as training for the U23 team going to the Olympics in July, it tells you how little they really care. When a place at the now-defunct Confederations Cup and a chance to take on the big teams of the world, isn’t on the table, they don’t care too much about it.

NZ Gold
New Zealand U23 could celebrate a gold medal at the Pacific Games last summer, now they’ll also get the chance to win the Nations Cup. (Photo credit: FFS Media)

If you make it as part of the World Cup qualifiers, it would give them a reason to field their strongest side as a date with the big guns seems to be all they care about.

In conclusion, I would like to say the Nations League should be put down on paper and into play as fast as possible, preferably for 2021. For the good of the entire region.

If the smaller teams get to play more games, they will get better and competition will be evener.

We may not see the value and reward of it for another ten years, but it needs to happen.

It needs to happen now.

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Author: Ola Bjerkevoll

A passion for everything football and especially in Oceania. Owner of Football in Oceania.

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