Byline: ANDREW JENNINGS
AUSTRALIA have been virtually assured a place at the 2006 World Cup Finals after a FIFA shake- up which effectively took two places away from Europe.
The FIFA executive committee decided yesterday to award a guaranteed Finals place to the Oceania confederation, made up of Australia, New Zealand and a handful of Pacific islands.
The Australians are the only remotely world-class team in the region and even they have come up short of qualification standard for the past two World Cups, going down in playoffs to teams from stronger confederations. But FIFA have decided they should qualify automatically, without having to face a playoff.
The other big winner in the World Cup carve- up was Asia. In 1998, they had only three berths but will have four guaranteed places and the chance to play off for a fifth from now on.
The CONCACAF region - North and Central America and the Caribbean - retained their three places and were given the chance to play off for a fourth.
South America retained four places but had to concede a half-place play- off, while Africa will continue with five berths.
It brought condemnation from South American Football Confederation spokesman Nestor Benitez.
He said: 'The tradition and history of the South Americans have been overlooked.
What have Africa and Asia done in the history of football? This goes against fair play. It doesn't respect our history and quality.' The changes are a big blow for UEFA. There were 15 European teams at last summer's Finals. Now that number has effectively been reduced to 13, although Germany, as hosts, will make it 14 in 2006.
After the decision, an angrylooking UEFA president Lennart Johansson refused to comment, saying: 'The meeting was confidential.' The newly created slot for Oceania could be a lifeline for the Aussie FA, deep in debt and troubled by internal battles. But it will anger Europe, where qualifying competition is so intense that a team as strong as Holland failed to make it to the Far East. There are 25 UEFA teams above Australia, who are 50th in FIFA's latest rankings. …