This is where the tie-breaker comes in.
In the group stage, each team plays a match against its group mates with three points in the standings for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss. This means that the slightest statistical difference can be what sends a team to the knockout round and disappoints the other team. And trust me, the tiebreaker gets weirder the deeper the process goes.
Let’s analyze how it works.
You will likely see this tiebreaker played at the World Cup in Qatar.
If we are looking at a three-way tie at this point, the standings will be recalculated just for matches involving the tied teams. The team at the top of that table moves on. If it is *still* a tie, we move on to the next tiebreaker.
In 2018, Japan progressed to the Round of 16 – beating Senegal – only because Senegal had two more yellow cards than Japan.
Fair Play also applies here if three teams pass all previous tie-breaks.
It really is a terrible tie-breaker because it values subjective decisions over actual performance on the pitch.
We haven’t seen this happen at the World Cup, but the situation between Japan and Senegal in 2018 was already very close to comfort. I’d rather see both teams have impromptu penalties than this.
You can’t have a tiebreaker literally left to chance, and FIFA doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to integrity. Let’s hope this sketch never happens.