After the hard-fought matches of the World Cup group stage, it’s not always easy to figure out which teams are advancing to the knockout round. Sure, it’s the top two teams from each group that advance, but sometimes there are ties in the standings. That’s when FIFA turns to these tiebreakers in order to determine who wins the group, who moves on as the second-place team, and who goes home.
The first two tiebreakers for teams tied on points are pretty basic: goal differential and goals scored. Here is how they work:
The first tiebreaker that is used if teams are even on points, goal differential is simply goals scored minus goals allowed. It’s a nice, basic performance quality measure that’s easy to calculate. You want to score as many goals as possible, and give up as few as possible, so the bigger positive number you have in goal differential, the better you’ve been playing.
Should goal differential be even between teams tied on points, FIFA moves on to goals scored as the next tiebreaker. It’s not as clean a measure of performance as goal differential, but again, you do want to score lots of goals to win games. So if you scored more goals than the other team(s) you tied with in the group standings, FIFA believes you deserve to move on past them.
Of course, there’s the minor issue that if you scored more goals than another team and had the same goal differential, you also allowed more goals than them, but let’s not focus on that.
Sometimes — but not very often — those basic group stage tiebreakers don’t quite do the job. When two or more teams remain deadlocked at this point, there are more tiebreakers ready to be used:
Points from group stage matches involving the tied teams
The first tiebreaker at this stage is results between the teams: If one side in a two-way tie won the match against the other than it moves on. If three teams are still tied at this stage, the highest point total in games between the teams involved gets the nod.
Goal differential in group stage matches involving the tied teams
Goals scored in group stage matches involving the tied teams
The next two tiebreakers — goal difference and goals scored between the teams — wouldn’t really apply if only two teams are still tied at this point because if they drew their one group stage match, these numbers would be identical. This tiebreaker comes in to play if there are three teams in the mix.
It’s incredibly rare to happen, but sometimes teams are still tied after all that. At this point, there’s just two things left two do.
The ‘Fair Play’ tiebreaker
If teams remain tied through all the above tiebreakers, it’s time to look at their disciplinary records in the tournament: A yellow card takes one point off your total, an indirect red (the result of being shown a second yellow card) is three points off, a straight red is four points off, and if you get a yellow and a direct red it’s worth five points off your total. The team with the highest total points remaining is the one that advances.
A random drawing!
If, somehow, things are still tied by some bizarre happenstance after even that, there’s only one thing left to do: the drawing of lots. Any teams still in the tiebreaker have their names printed out and put into balls, which are in turn put into a bowl, just like the group stage draw. Whichever team is drawn out is given the top spot out of the tiebreaker, while the other has to deal with whatever spot is left — which is almost always a ticket for a trip back home.
Do these World Cup tiebreakers come into play?
They sure do. The United States men’s national team was involved in a tiebreaker situation in the 2014 World Cup, when its goal differential (a whopping 0) was enough to get past Portugal (-3) and out of Group G. Mexico were on the happy end of a goal differential tiebreaker in 2010, advancing over hosts South Africa in Group A. Meanwhile, in Group C that same year, the USMNT won the group over England thanks to having more goals scored. In fact, it’s rare for a World Cup to not have at least one tiebreaker situation in the group stage. The 1998 World Cup was the last to lack such drama. Interestingly, that was the first World Cup played under the current 32-team format.