Are you wondering why the U.S. plays Germany at the same time that Portugal face Ghana? Have you been pondering this question since Monday, when Netherlands and Chile kicked off at the same time as Australia and Spain?
It's a legitimate question. After all, for the first 10 days of the World Cup, no two matches occurred at the same time. But, in the final game of the group stages, two games occur simultaneously. This wasn't always the case. Through the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the matches remained staggered.
Then came the infamous meeting between West Germany and Austria. Going into the match, the two sides were top in their group. But the day before, Algeria had defeated Chile. This meant Algeria could progress, unless West Germany won 1-0 or 2-0.
Neither occurred. Horst Hrubesch scored in the 12th minute, putting West Germany ahead. Both teams then knocked the ball around rather aimlessly for 80 minutes or so, with Austria failing to offer much in the way of attacking. When the final whistle blew, both were through to the next round.
Spectators in Gijón were disgusted. It was a spontaneous case of collusion, rather than a case of pre-match fixing, but fans of both sides disagreed with their teams' approach to advancing. One of Austria's national broadcasters actually told those watching at home to turn off their televisions, and refused to speak for the last thirty minutes of the match. When German fans gathered at the team's hotel to protest, the team threw water bombs down from their balconies.
But no rules were broken, so no punishments were meted out. Instead, the match schedule was changed so that, from 1986 on, the final matches in each group would be played at the same time.
The specter of 1982 hovers over Thursday's matches, in particular. The U.S. and Germany go into their match knowing that a draw will send both sides through. There are no further safeguards in place, nothing preventing these teams from merely passing the ball with little ambition.
Nothing except pride, that is. Well that, and the realization that if your opponents aren't on the same wavelength, they might decide to score a goal, thus severely damaging your chances of getting through to the next round.