ZURICH (AP) — New Zealand’s path to the World Cup in Qatar will also start there when the Oceania qualifying tournament that was drawn on Monday is played in the host nation in March.
The Oceania games will be closely watched by the United States and Mexico which could yet land in a World Cup playoff next June against the best team from the Pacific region.
Qatar was confirmed on Monday by FIFA as the neutral host for the Oceania qualifiers which have been persistently delayed by travel and quarantine restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The March 14-30 schedule for the Pacific region teams “presents the first — and indeed last — opportunity for the preliminary competition to take place,” FIFA said.
New Zealand, which previously played at the 2010 and 1982 World Cups, has the region's most established player in Burnley forward Chris Wood and is strongly favored to win the Oceania tournament.
Oceania has no direct entry to the 32-team World Cup. Its qualifying tournament winner earns a playoff game in Qatar on June 13 or 14 against the fourth-place team from the North American qualifying group.
The fourth-place team is currently Panama, though tied on points with Mexico and trailing only one behind the U.S. The group is led by Canada with six rounds of games left through March 30.
Also on Monday, FIFA drew the Oceania qualifying groups that put New Zealand with New Caledonia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
New Zealand has played little competitive soccer in the past four years. After the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia – losing to the host, Mexico and Portugal – New Zealand missed out on the 2018 World Cup by losing to Peru over two legs in the intercontinental playoffs.
Now ranked No. 110 by FIFA, the Kiwis have played just a few friendlies in the past three years and not at all in 2020.
The other group has Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu, plus the winner of a play-in preliminary game between Tonga and Cook Islands.
The top two in each group advance to the semifinals, with a March 30 final to decide Oceania’s entry in the intercontinental playoffs.
Only nine of the Oceania region’s 11 national teams will take part. Samoa and American Samoa withdrew.