Australia Petition FIFA to Move Out of Oceania and Join Asia

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia have asked world soccer's governing body FIFA for permission to ditch the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) and join Asia as part of a move to develop their domestic game and make it easier to qualify for the World Cup.

Frank Lowy chairman of Football Federation Australia (FFA) released a statement on Friday confirming talks were underway for his country to join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) after 2006.

'For some time now the FFA has had an objective to join AFC' Lowy said. 'Our current affiliation leaves Australia in an anomalous situation in a football sense.'

FFA chief executive John O'Neill said the push to join Asia was part of a long-term strategy to improve the commercial and competitive nature of soccer in a country where it lags behind the more popular football codes of Australian Rules rugby union and rugby league.

'There is no doubt that if FFA is able to achieve membership of AFC it will go a long way towards transforming football in Australia' O'Neill said.

'As we move from a domestic competitive environment into an exciting dynamic regional one (this) will contribute to the improved competitive position of the game at all levels particularly national team and club.'

Australia have long entertained thoughts of joining Asia but the move intensified after FIFA went back on its promise to award Oceania direct entry to the 2006 World Cup.

Under the existing arrangement the Oceania winner Australia or the Solomon Islands have to playoff against a South American team while Asia has four direct qualifying spots and a playoff position.

Australia are the dominant force in the region but have qualified for the World Cup only once in 1974.

The announcement that Australia was holding talks with FIFA about a possible move to Asia caught the OFC by surprise.

OFC general secretary Tai Nicholas told the New Zealand Press Association the confederation had not been told about the proposed move let alone discussed it.

'Until the members of OFC have been consulted and expressed their views on such a proposal OFC is not in a position to make any further comment' Nicholas said.

New Zealand Soccer chief executive Graham Seatter said he was strongly opposed to the move saying it would damage Oceania's position in the game.

'We have suffered by being in the weakest FIFA confederation. Without Australia we would be further weakened and we will suffer more' Seatter told the New Zealand Herald.

'There is a lot of water to flow under the bridge before this happens.'