Chris Rattue wrote a controversial column in the New Zealand Herald last week, entitled “Fifa’s ‘generous’ gift does NZ no favours”. In it, he argued that New Zealand’s role as “Oceania’s wet nurse”, and the easy ride to the World Cup that comes along with it, is bad for the game in this country.
I’ve taken some time before writing this critique, because I wanted to think long and hard about it before committing to a position. There are two legitimate ways to come down. Some of what he says is poorly thought out and easily dismissed as rubbish. A lot of people I know and respect have reacted this way to the piece as a whole. The other way of looking at it though, is to see past the flaws in his argument and address the underlying issues. I’m choosing the latter approach. I am well aware that some of the things he has said in his column are not easy to hear for some people in the game with emotional investment in the status quo, but there are some aspects to what Rattue is saying that I have some sympathy with, and I think they need to be fleshed out a bit more.
I’ll deal with the flaws in Rattue’s argument first, and then come to what I believe to be the home truths in a minute.
He asserts that the lack of competition for us in Oceania is holding us back in terms of the ability of the All Whites to compete internationally due to poor build-up and preparation. I disagree. New Zealand football benefits from the status quo in terms of huge financial resources that can be poured back into the development of the game. Every time a New Zealand team goes to a World Cup, it results in a financial windfall in terms of prize money. If we were in Asia and playing in their qualifying groups, the additional matches might make us a more battle hardened team, but we would suffer a double whammy of the trips required being much more expensive for us, and the fact that we would find it much harder, if not impossible, to get to World Cups. Partly as a result, the New Zealand public would not get out and watch the games so the financial benefit of more home matches would be nil. This would result in a weaker national body, less well equipped to attract youngsters to the game and long-term a weaker national team. New Zealand does very well out of Oceania.
Rattue perceives an unfairness in New Zealand getting an intercontinental play-off for a World Cup berth at the expense of better teams elsewhere in the world. I don’t necessarily buy that argument per se, because it’s a WORLD Cup. You need representation from a geographic spread of countries to make it a truly worldwide event. I therefore have very little sympathy for the 14th best team in Europe, who may feel aggrieved that we are at the World Cup and they are not. Otherwise we could take the argument to its natural conclusion and say that we shouldn’t have World Cup qualification because the top 32 teams in the FIFA rankings should go on merit regardless of whether or not they all come from one or two continents.
But on the other hand, let’s face it, overall the man has a point about Oceania. Why does New Zealand in particular deserve this easy life of an almost guaranteed half place in the World Cup all of our own? Is it simply an accident of geography that can’t be helped, or is it more political than that? For that matter, why does a small island nation like Tahiti deserve an easier pathway to the World Cup, with or without a “wet nurse”, than a small island nation like Barbados? I’m the first to heartily accept that we have an obligation to look after our Pacific neighbours, but as Rita of ‘Made in Dagenham’ fame would say, isn’t that ‘as it should be’, regardless?
If you, the reader, were put personally in charge of designing the boundaries of all the confederations from scratch with no other factors apart from what looks about right, is this how you would have it? Honestly? The simple fact for me is that Oceania is far too small. It is out of proportion with the other confederations and this creates inequalities and unfairnesses. You can’t just wave a magic wand and fix it, but you can admit that it’s not ideal and at least look at ways it could be better.
One idea I have floated on this blog before, is to divide Asia up into two with a West Asian confederation taking in the Middle East and the sub-continent, and an East Asian confederation incorporating Oceania. Another idea I had last week and mentioned on Twitter for a completely radical overhaul of the entire board, is to create four completely new Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Mediterranean/Adriatic confederations.
Football purists in this country don’t by and large support the game financially. Football, the way it operates in New Zealand, is unsustainable without more spectators and enthusiasts. We need new blood. For that to occur, for one example, it’s not ok that our premier men’s national league is boring. We have players operating in it for the sole purpose of keeping fit over summer because they can’t dream of winning it while its sole purpose appears to be to produce one team capable of going to a World Cup and bringing home the bacon. To borrow a political phrase, we seem to be farming the subsidy, not the crop… While some are saying “what would Rattue know, he’s a rugby head who calls it soccer”, the unfortunate reality is, whether we like it or not, if he really is a rugby loving football simpleton, he is also our target demographic.
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: http://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/