When former Oceania giants Australia jumped ship for the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, it was widely assumed that New Zealand would be the region's new kingpins. Sure enough, the All Whites have now won their way through to a triple triumph: the 2008 Oceania Nations Cup, a place at next year's FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, and a playoff with the fifth-placed Asian side for a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Yet the road was not always easy for Ricki Herbert's men, and there is plenty of cause for the island nations of the Oceania Football Confederation to take heart from the four-team qualifying series.
New Zealand almost received the shock of their lives in their second game, against their 2004 Oceania Nations Cup nemesis Vanuatu. The unfancied islanders took the lead in the first half, and had restricted the Kiwis to a single goal after the break until a David Mulligan header deep into injury time gave New Zealand a lucky win.
In March of this year, Vanuatu showed that they had serious ambitions in the region by engaging Dutch coach Aad de Mos, formerly in charge of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Anderlecht, as their head coach. Not content with a high-profile coaching appointment for their national team, Vanuatu availed themselves of the services of FIFA Development Officer Patrick Jacquemet for a series of coaching courses for local aspirants in April and June.
Similarly ambitious are New Caledonia, who were the revelations of the four-team qualifying event under highly-rated young French coach Didier Chambaron. Although Chambaron jokingly referred to his side's encounter with New Zealand as being "like Carquefou against Olympique Marseille", there is no question that the Caledonians, who secured second place in the section, are on the way up.
Chambaron has a broader vision of his role, as well. "
The other team in the Oceania qualifying group, Fiji, have long been one of Oceania's more promising nations, but have suffered from their players' lack of overseas opportunities. This is slowly changing, however, with some of their key players gaining important semi-professional experience in New Zealand. Big striker Osea "Ozzy" Vakatalesau, who could not stop scoring at the South Pacific Games in August-September 2007, has joined ambitious Kiwi club YoungHeart Manawatu, while 21-year-old playmaker Roy Krishna, Fiji's star player of the qualifiers, plies his trade with New Zealand champions Waitakere United, who will be taking part in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan this December.
Above all, these three island nations have benefited from initiatives undertaken as part of FIFA's Goal Programme. New Caledonia's impressive new technical centre in Paita, with its state-of-the-art artificial turf pitches, was opened in May of this year; a similar facility is under construction in Nadawa in Fiji. In Vanuatu, funds from the programme will soon allow for an artificial pitch to be installed at the National Stadium in Port Vila, which did not previously meet requirements for international matches.
They may have missed out on South Africa 2010, but the footballing future looks bright for the island nations of Oceania.