What are the rules for tie-breaking in the group stage?

While the knockout stage of the World Cup is a straightforward setup (single-elimination, extra time and penalty shootouts), the group stage can get quite complicated when it comes to deciding which teams will continue. And more often than not, the three quarter-final matches don’t give us the top two clear spots per group.

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.

The first comma break is simple enough. You subtract goals scored against goals allowed, and the team with the best differential moves continues. For example, the United States finished second in the group in 2014 by achieving an equal goal difference compared to Portugal -3. Both teams had a 1-1-1 record going into the group.

You will likely see this tiebreaker played at the World Cup in Qatar.

If the teams are tied on points and goal disparity, FIFA continues to tally the goals scored to break the tie. Of course, this break disregards goals conceded, but FIFA wants teams to put the ball into the net. So this gets preference.

If it is a two-way tie, the winner of the head-to-head match moves on. If that head-to-head match is a tie, we’ll move on to tiebreaker #6. And it’s a wild game.

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.

This tiebreaker is only valid in a three-way tie, because the winner of a head-to-head match in a two-way tie will naturally have the best difference. Again, this tiebreaker reduces the standings to just matches involving the three teams tied. The team with the best goal difference from those games advances.

If the three teams somehow have the same goal difference in all head-to-head matches, the team that scored the most goals in those matches between the tied teams continues. It is extremely rare for a three-way tie to go beyond this point.

Although this is extremely rare, we’ve seen this watershed play out recently in bilateral relationships. Essentially, if all other tiebreakers are exhausted without a winner, the team with the better disciplinary record in the group stage advances.

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.

At this point, FIFA has run out of ideas although there are other ways that would make sense (lowest goals, goals saved, goals from open play). This lack of imagination will result in a random drawing where the organizing committee draws a team from a pot.

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.

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