16 Jul 2015

Naive New Zealand duped off the park

11:16 am on 16 July 2015

OPINION: New Zealand Football has been careless once again and their Rio Olympics dream is over. But they've also been played by some dark forces within the Oceania Football Confederation.

Look beyond this seemingly dry - and even slightly boring - legal story about which set of rules or FIFA statutes should apply to poor Deklan Wynne, and you begin to glimpse the depths of the internecine politics that run in behind world football.

Deklan Wynne speaking to media at Auckland Airport.

Deklan Wynne speaking to media at Auckland Airport. Photo: RNZ / Mohamed Hassan

On the weekend the Oly Whites' inevitable march to next year's Olympic Games was suddenly, stunningly halted, as a player eligibility row erupted over the South African-born defender.

Vanuatu had lost 2-0 to the New Zealanders in the semi-finals of the Pacific Games Olympic qualifying tournament in Papua New Guinea - but after they protested, 20-year-old Wynne became the fall guy for any chance that he and his team had of playing in Sunday's final, and hence the Rio Games.

The ni-Vanuatu took the New Zealanders' place in the decider against Fiji - not that it did them any good as they lost on penalties. But that may not have mattered to whoever it was who concocted this plot, which seems to have been all about inflicting pain on New Zealand Football.

New Zealand under 20 football team celebrate goal 2015.

Happier times - NZ under 20 football team celebrate a goal at the recent tournament in New Zealand. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Yes, NZ Football should and no doubt will look at themselves, once they accept their shot at Olympic glory is gone. This isn't the first time in recent history that they've dropped the ball over bureaucratic issues*.

They should have known that Wynne (and possibly several other players in the squad) were open to a protest under FIFA rules. They should have petitioned the world governing body for an exemption before the Pacific Games - which they likely would have been granted. Instead, they rolled the dice, deciding Wynne qualified, that he was fine to play the Olympic qualifiers because they were being run as part of the Pacific Games under those rules - only to be ambushed when Vanuatu cited FIFA regulations.

Turns out FIFA rules always over-ride everything else. Who knew, right?

Now it appears there's going to be a costly, lengthy and ultimately futile legal argument over whether Wynne does or doesn't qualify, and under which statute.

Let's get one thing straight. The Olympics are gone for the New Zealand Under-23 men's team**.

New Zealand athletes at the Pacific Games opening ceremony in Papua New Guinea.

New Zealand athletes at the Pacific Games opening ceremony in Papua New Guinea. Photo: RNZ Vinnie Wylie

They won't be going to the Olympics simply because FIFA is literally a law unto itself.

If, miraculously, NZ Football won their appeal at Oceania's Disciplinary Committee or they take their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and won, FIFA would simply turn around and say: 'Fiji are going to Rio. End of story'.

FIFA have form for such things, and they can - and will - act in that manner. They answer to no one, and the 10 other official Oceania nations easily trump New Zealand in FIFA's minds.

Besides, they've already said exactly that.

How did it come to this?

Who tipped Vanuatu off that Wynne could be a life-line for their Olympic ambitions, if they inevitably lost to the New Zealanders in the semi?

And who convinced FIFA to allow the Pacific Games to double as the Olympic qualifiers?

The ludicrous tournament schedule which saw the finalists play five games in 10 days in scorching hot temperatures in Port Moresby was the earliest pointer that the fix was in: someone in Oceania was trying to make life as difficult as possible for the Oly Whites.

The confusion began right there for NZ Football, with twin sets of rules clouding their vision. New Zealand Football was sure they had Wynne's eligibility under control because, under the Pacific Games rules, any protest over player eligibility needed to be done and dusted before the tournament began.

But someone in Oceania - likely several someones - noticed, and kept quiet until after the semi-final when the New Zealand team manager was handed a printout of the protest as he was boarding the bus. Bang! FIFA rules. You're nicked, mate.

New Zealand Football CEO Andy Martin.

New Zealand Football CEO Andy Martin. Photo: Supplied

New Zealand Football CEO Andy Martin has intimated that poor communication and technology, if not outright evasion, contributed to their demise. At the start of Tuesday's press conference in North Harbour Stadium Martin was at pains to point out the exact timeframe of events between the semi and their disqualification - as if trying desperately to point the journalists to clues that could help us find the culprit.

The problem under FIFA regulation 7 is that Wynne hasn't lived here for five years from the age of 18 - which is impossible as he's only 20. That rule was introduced back in 2008 to stop nation-hopping Brazilians riding Middle Eastern oil money into whichever country paid the highest price for their talents.

NZ Football remain convinced Wynne qualifies under FIFA regulation 6: '...living continuously on the territory of the relevant Association for at least two years.' He holds a New Zealand passport, is a citizen, has never represented South Africa at any level.

Now it seems he can't play for any New Zealand team until he's 23. The rule, in effect, prohibits any player with possible dual nationality from playing at any level of youth football, unless they have a parent or grandparent born in the territory.

Deklan Wynne

Deklan Wynne Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Look past the unfortunate Wynne though, and gaze into the face of world football.

Money and power and privilege run the Beautiful Game - and cunning.

The kind of cunning on display in Port Moresby. The kind that saw a trusting, follow-the-rules approach from naive New Zealand end up with a lost Olympic campaign, and a player who may never wear the All Whites strip again.

Make no mistake. New Zealand have been outwitted, conned, duped - pick your poison. Someone saw us coming and engineered a very different end to the story. Someone in Oceania perhaps, who didn't like NZ Football voting against Sepp Blatter in Zurich when the other Oceania nations supported the old Swiss. Someone who didn't like All Whites coach Anthony Hudson and Martin's complaints about the schedule, and the heat.

Someone who really doesn't like New Zealand Football.

* All Whites goalkeeper Glenn Moss was handed a four-match ban in a World Cup qualifier, ironically against Fiji, for swearing at a referee in what was a dead rubber in 2008. New Zealand Football then failed to file the appropriate papers in time to appeal his suspension, and Moss was forced to sit out two games at the Cup in South Africa - and in fact missed out on all three of the All Whites' games, as Mark Paston claimed the No.1 jersey for their entire historic unbeaten run.

** Another farcical FIFA fact: the Olympics are for under-23 players only, except three over the age of 23 are allowed. This is so no one ever thinks the Games are equivalent, or better than, the World Cup.

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