As the group stage of the FIFA World Cup ends and we transition into the knockout stages of the tournament, more and more teams are facing elimination from the competition. The margins to qualify for the knockout rounds are slim, as seen in the Group C finale on Wednesday. In fact, the margins were so slim that the fairplay tiebreaker was nearly enforced to determine which nation would go through.
Heading into the match day, Poland and Mexico led the group with four points while Argentina and Saudi Arabia had three points each. Argentina scored two second-half goals to secure a top-spot finish, but that left Poland squirming and depending on Saudi Arabia to keep Mexico at bay. Mexico also scored two second-half goals, which put them even with Poland on points (4), goal-difference (0) and total goals scored (2), at least temporarily. The two teams had also tied their group-stage encounter, which brought the fifth tiebreaker into play.
Unfortunately for lovers of chaos and silliness, Saudi Arabia scored a consolation goal in the 95th minute to make all of that inconsequential. But for nearly 30 minutes Mexico was facing the real possibility of getting eliminated due to having committed more yellow-card offenses than Poland.
Here’s a better breakdown of the tiebreakers for reference:
- Points are the first way of separating teams in the group stage. Teams receive three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss. Very straightforward.
- Goal difference is the second tiebreaker. This is calculated by subtracting the total number of goals a team concedes from the number of goals they score in all group-stage games.
- Goals scored is next up. This is designed to encourage teams to attack, and why it’s not just pure aesthetics when a team like Spain obliterates of Costa Rica.
- It might seem a little strange to American sports fans, but this is where head-to-head play finally comes in.
- The fifth tiebreaker rule is perhaps the cruelest. This one comes down to the number of cards a team accumulated throughout the group stage, and is called the fair play rule. A yellow card is minus one point, two yellow cards (indirect red card) will cost you three points, and a straight red card is subtraction of four points. A yellow card and a straight red card is a whopping five-point deduction. This has only been invoked once in World Cup history, during the previous tournament between Japan and Senegal. Senegal fell victim to the fair play rule. In this case, Mexico had -7 fair-play points, while Poland had -5.
- The last “tiebreaker” is a random draw. I think this would be the most cruel and heartbreaking way to go out, but has luckily never come into play.