• Two years of Oceania zone World Cup qualifying draws to a close
  • New Zealand top region for the third successive time
  • Some of OFC’s smaller nations achieved historic highs

Oceania’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ story involved 11 nations competing in 35 matches across a period of 737 days before eventually running its course. In the end, the tale was completed amid a familiar outcome with New Zealand the last team left standing.

The All Whites are now just 180 minutes away from repeating their feat of eight years ago and winning a spot at world football’s biggest stage. To do so, however, they will need to overcome South America’s fifth-placed nation. And currently sitting in the play-off position ahead of CONMEBOL’s final two qualifiers in October is none other than two-time world champions Argentina.

FIFA.com takes a look back at two years of World Cup qualifiers in the Pacific.

The journey
Russia 2018 qualifying in Oceania kicked-off in the most inauspicious surroundings possible; the palm-tree lined perimeter of the Tonga Football Association’s playing fields. A Polynesian quartet of American Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga and Samoa competed with the latter advancing. Despite the humble environs, there were numerous tales of triumph. Former whipping boys American Samoa only missed out progressing on goal difference. Cook Islands won their first-ever World Cup match against a FIFA Member Association - and duly repeated the feat 48 hours later. Tonga, meanwhile, played their first World Cup matches on home soil for 19 years!

The second stage doubled as the OFC Nations Cup, and thus a qualifier to the FIFA Confederations Cup. Six nations won through to Stage 3 qualifying, and New Zealand topped them all to reach Russia 2017. But the breakthrough success story was fast-rising Papua New Guinea, who reached the final on home soil, and created unprecedented football fervour in the Melanesian nation. Ultimately, only a penalty shoot-out denied them an unlikely Confederations Cup ticket.

Solomon Islands did it the hard way in topping their Stage 3 group ahead of Tahiti and PNG, where tight matches were a constant theme. It was a different story in the other group as New Zealand won three and drew one of their four matches to advance with room to spare. In that context it was little surprise that New Zealand crushed the Bonitos in the play-off with their 8-3 aggregate victory based on a 6-1 first-leg home win.

The players
New Zealand striker Chris Wood marked himself as the new star of New Zealand football. Wood reprised his consistently strong form at club level for Leeds United and, as of recently, Burnley to end as the continent’s top-scorer with eight goals. PNG forward Raymond Gunemba also carved out a name for himself by becoming just the second non-New Zealand or Australia player to outright win the Nations Cup golden boot.

For a few hours in September 2015, Cook Islands’ forward Taylor Saghabi – a concreter by trade – was the joint leading goalscorer in Russia 2018 qualifying with four goals. No mean feat from a player representing FIFA’s smallest Member Association outside the Caribbean. Russia 2018 qualifying also saw Henry Fa’Arodo became the first Solomon Islands player to surpass 50 caps, with the veteran forward now likely to bow out of international football.

The stat
4
– Impressive New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic conceded only four goals in his side’s 11 matches. Incredibly, all four goals came from the penalty spot. The All Whites’ netted bulged just once in their nine matches prior to the play-off.

The quote
“What’s next is we have to make sure we prepare well in October. And we get all our best players back and we’re ready for November. We’ve been following the COMNEBOL teams and we are looking forward to it.”
New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson