Today in the World Cup: a massive game that both teams would secretly both like to lose.
England and Belgium face off in the final game of Group H, both sitting on six points and already through to the last 16. Whoever wins will finish atop the group, and go into the side of the draw that includes a likely quarterfinal against Brazil. The loser will be on the other side of the bracket, where they would face a quarter-final against either Sweden or Switzerland.
Working on the not unreasonable basis that playing Brazil is bad for your World Cup health, the teams are taking action. With a few hours yet until kickoff, both teams are engaged in early passive-aggressive maneuvers, each trying to work out exactly how many changes they can make while still pretending that they’re trying to win. Roberto Martinez may make as many as 10 changes (!) for Belgium, while Gareth Southgate has apparently surprised his own squad with his experimental line-up.
So crazy lineups are already happening. You’d think just scoring own goals would be the easiest way to lose this match, but that would likely lead to censure from FIFA. The teams are going to have to be smarter than that, and the game could well end in a draw. If so, here are some strategies for sealing the deal. No need to thank us, Roberto, Gareth. Just do us proud.
The sacrificial lamb
If the scores are level as the end of the game approaches — goal differential and goals scored for the team are both even — then the final tie-breaker is Fair Play: the team with few yellow and red cards will finish higher, for the path of righteousness is narrow. It looks as if Gareth Southgate’s early gambit of picking Eric Dier will be matched by Belgium, who have Marouane Fellaini, so beloved of referees.
So this could be close. In these circumstances, we suggest the truly crafty manager may want to look at his bench and choose a player who is unlikely to feature much in the rest of the tournament. A spare goalkeeper, perhaps. Adnan Januzaj. Then send them on to do something unspeakable in the final few seconds. They leave the pitch in disgrace; they leave the stadium a national hero.
The empty bench
Or maybe the players are too precious to be risked like this. Maybe the real solution lies in the support staff. We all know that half the people on the bench at any given time are only there to pad out the expense claims and hoover up the free food. You’ve got some spare coaches, an odd physio lying around: Put them to work for once in their freeloading lives. Point them at the opposition, wind them up, and let them fly.
We’ll know shenanigans are definitely afoot if German Burgos, Atletico Madrid’s “raging bull” of an assistant, is a late addition to Belgium’s coaching staff.
The drawing of lots
As it stands, if England pick up one more booking than Belgium, and all else is equal, then the two teams will finish with identical records in every sporting respect and the group will be decided by the drawing of lots. Here we believe England have a serious advantage over Belgium’s much-praised squad. For if there’s one person involved in this whole shebang with the power to bend random chance to their will, it’s Phil Jones.
So, tell him to get as near to proceedings as possible. Tell him England definitely want to win the draw and finish top. Make him repeat that back to you. And then a few minutes later, once they’ve picked up the pieces and mopped away the blood and apologised to the viewers at home, England will have safely lost the draw and be comfortable in the safer half of the draw.
Arise, Sir Phil.