Qatar is now the neutral host of the Oceania 2022 World Cup qualifiers after significant delays due to Covid-19 quarantine restrictions, FIFA confirmed on Monday.
The Pacific region teams will battle in Doha between 14-30 March for a spot to return to the host country for a playoff game next June against the fourth-place team from the North American qualifying group.
The matches were previously delayed due to strict quarantine rules that disrupted the tournament’s qualifying schedule. FIFA said the new schedule “presents the first — and indeed last — opportunity for the preliminary competition to take place.”
The games will be closely watched by rival Mexico and United States, who could land a World Cup playoff on 13 or 14 June against the winning team from the Pacific region.
Currently, New Zealand, which previously played at the 2010 and 1982 World Cups, dominates the sphere thanks to its Burnley forward Chris Wood. Rumours suggest that the team is strongly favoured to win the Oceania tournament.
The Monday draw for the Oceania qualifying groups put New Zealand with New Caledonia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile, the other group includes Solomon Islands, Tahiti and Vanuatu, in addition to the winner of a play-in preliminary game between Tonga and Cook Islands.
Winners of both groups advance to the semi-finals, followed by a final game on 30 March to decide Oceania’s entry in the intercontinental playoffs.
Out of the 11 national teams from the region, only nine will take part in the qualifiers after Samoa and American Samoa withdrew.
Qatar is set to host the FIFA World Cup 2022 this time next year. The Gulf state is currently holding the FIFA Arab Cup, delivering a spectacular ceremony at the Al Bayt World Cup stadium on Tuesday night.