Throughout World Cup history, there have been many instances of two or more teams finishing their group with an equal number of points. Since the method to resolve the ties has evolved over the years, we are now going to tell you about the current and former group tie-breaking rules.
At the 2018 World Cup, if two or more teams in a group have the same number of points, the following criteria will be used to rank them:
- Goal difference
- Number of goals scored
- Number of points obtained in matches between tied teams
- Goal difference in matches between tied teams
- Number of goals scored in matches between tied teams
- Fair play points (new in 2018)
- Drawing of lots
Except perhaps for the last item, it’s a very solid procedure that most soccer fans can easily get behind. While we also think that this is an optimal solution, the path to it was anything but optimal, with several controversies flaring up along the way.
The first tie after the group stage happened in group 2 at the 1950 World Cup. Chile, England, and the United States finished with two points each, but since only the group winner advanced to the next stage, no official procedure was used to break the tie (retrospectively, the teams were ranked by goal difference).
In the 1954 World Cup, things got more interesting as all four groups had ties. In groups 1 and 3, the top two teams were tied, but all of them advanced to the knockout stage anyway, so lots were drawn to determine their final rankings. In the other groups, however, teams ranked 2 and 3 had the same number of points. An additional pair of playoff games were scheduled, and despite a clearly superior goal record, Italy were controversially eliminated by the host Switzerland (1-4).
In 1958, once again every group featured a tie, but this time FIFA introduced a tie-breaking method called the “goal average”: the number of goals scored divided by the number of goals conceded. Still, the method was only applied to the top two teams that advanced to the knockout stage in group 2.
In the other three groups, playoff games were ordered again to separate teams ranked 2 and 3. Although Czechoslovakia (group 1) and Hungary (group 3) had superior goal records, they were eliminated by Northern Ireland and Wales, respectively. A true tie occurred in group 4 between the Soviet Union and England. Even though the USSR won their playoff game, the English fans should at least have been happy that no lots were drawn.
After the 1958 World Cup, playoff games have never again been used to break ties. In 1962, England’s superior goal average meant that they finished second in group 4 ahead of Argentina (who weren’t quite yet the big rivals that they would become). Four years later, Germany won group 2 because of a better goal average, which postponed their classic clash with England until the final.
Finally in 1970, the goal difference replaced the goal average as the primary tie-breaking criterion. The decision was made in order to reward attacking teams that score more goals.
To see why, imagine a defensively minded team that concedes no goals during the group stage. Its goal average would be “infinity” (number of goals scored “divided by” zero) regardless of how few goals they scored. By contrast, a team that gives up 1 goal would have a goal average of “less than infinity” (whatever number of goals scored divided by 1) regardless of how many goals they score.
For example, if Spain and Portugal are in the same group and both teams score the same number of points – but Spain scores 10 goals and concedes 1, while Portugal scores 1 goal and concedes 0, most soccer fans would probably rank Spain ahead of Portugal – even if Portugal’s 1 goal came against Spain! So, in the final analysis, goal difference is a more accurate tie-breaking method than goal average.
At the 1974 World Cup in Germany, a full tie-breaking procedure was formally established that looked almost the same as the one that will be used in Russia. The only difference is that item #6 (fair play points) was missing. Luckily for FIFA, they had to go that far down the list only once.
In group F of the 1990 World Cup, Ireland and the Netherlands tied all their games and either scored or conceded the same number of goals. Lots were drawn, and Ireland was ranked second, with the Netherlands third. As a result, Ireland played Romania, beat them on penalty kicks, and advanced to the quarterfinals, where they lost to host Italy. By contrast, the European champions from the Netherlands met the eventual winners, Germany, and were promptly eliminated.
There is hardly anything that all soccer fans can agree on, but if we can avoid the drawing of lots at the 2018 World Cup, we all should be happy about it.