Home SPORTS How tiebreakers will come into play

How tiebreakers will come into play


We are through two rounds of the 2018 World Cup group stage. The decisive final round is here. That means it’s time to prepare for convoluted scenarios, tiebreaker confusion and potential chaos.

As of Monday night, eight nations – Uruguay, Russia, Spain, Portugal, France, Croatia, Belgium and England – have already qualified for the Round of 16. Nine – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iran, Peru, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Panama and Poland – have been eliminated.

So there are 15 teams vying for eight knockout round spots. And there are all types of crazy permutations, including four groups that could be decided by a drawing of lots. (An asterisk* denotes those groups below.)

There is also potential for perverse incentives, where second place in a group could be preferable to first. We’re going to get to all of those. Below is a group-by-group look at Matchday 3 scenarios.

Lionel Messi and Argentina need a win, and a bit of help, to advance at the World Cup. (Getty)

But first, a quick look at World Cup tiebreakers


If two or more teams are tied on points, FIFA’s 2018 World Cup regulations lay out seven tiebreakers

1. Goal differential
2. Goals scored
3. Head-to-head result

In the case of a three-team tie where all three teams are level on goal differential and goals scored …

4. Goal differential in games among tied teams
5. Goals scored in games among tied teams

If teams are still tied …

6. Fair play – also known as fewest yellow cards (unless one of the tied teams has picked up a red card, in which case FIFA’s discipline scoring system comes into play. Card counts can be found here).
7. Drawing of lots

And yes, No. 6 and 7 could easily come into play.

Group C*

All game times ET. Numbers in parentheses: (points | goal differential)

Tuesday, 10 a.m.: France (6|2) vs. Denmark (4|1) | Australia (1|-1) vs. Peru (0|-2)

France is through, and can clinch top spot with a draw. Denmark can secure a Round of 16 place with a draw, and can win the group with a victory.

Australia needs a win and a Denmark loss. If either margin is more than one, Australia goes through. If the scores are identical, Australia goes through. If both margins are one, and Denmark scores more goals in defeat than Australia does in victory, the Danes survive. If they score the same amount of goals – for example, a 2-1 Denmark loss and 1-0 Australia win – discipline comes into play. Australia currently has three yellow cards to Denmark’s four. If that evens out … lots.

Group D*

Tuesday, 2 p.m.: Croatia (6|5) vs. Iceland (1|-2) | Nigeria (3|0) vs. Argentina (1|-3)

The simple permutations: Croatia is through, and will top the group with at least a draw. Iceland and Argentina, on the other hand, would each be out with a draw. Nigeria would advance with a win, or with a draw and anything less than an Iceland win by multiple goals.

Argentina is at the heart of the complexity. It can advance with a win and Iceland draw or loss. If both Argentina and Iceland win, they would be level on four points. Argentina would have to make up one goal to bring differential level as well.

[More on Group D: Why Nigeria’s win over Iceland aided Argentina]

If Argentina scores one more goal than Iceland and wins by a goal more than Iceland wins by – so, say, 2-0 and 1-0 – we’d go to fair play, where Iceland’s ZERO yellow cards would give it a major advantage (Argentina has three). If Iceland were to even the discipline standings, we’d go to lots.

Group E

Wednesday, 2 p.m.: Brazil (4|2) vs. Serbia (3|0) | Switzerland (4|1) vs. Costa Rica (0|-3)

The intrigue in Group E is that teams will know Group F results by the time they kick off on Wednesday. There’s a good chance the “reward” for winning the group will be a Round of 16 matchup with Germany, if the reigning champs finish second. The runner-up in E could get Mexico or Sweden.

And on that note … Switzerland, interestingly, can guarantee the runner-up spot – no better, no worse – with a draw vs. already-eliminated Costa Rica.

Brazil and Switzerland can each clinch progression with a draw. If both draw, Brazil would top the group.

Serbia most likely needs a win. In case of a draw, it would need the Swiss to lose, and likely by multiple goals – Switzerland has a slim goals scored and differential advantage, and also the head-to-head tiebreaker.

If Brazil beats Serbia, that confirms Brazil and Switzerland as the two qualifiers.

Group F

Wednesday, 10 a.m.: Mexico (6|2) vs. Sweden (3|0) | Germany (3|0) vs. South Korea (0|-2)

There’s no way to get to the sixth or seventh tiebreakers here, but there’s potential for mind-twisting tiebreaker calculations.

The only simple part: Mexico tops the group with a win or draw. And if it does, Germany advances as runner-up with either a win or draw, unless both games are draws and Mexico-Sweden features more goals. (Mexico also advances with a Germany draw or loss.)

If Sweden and Germany both win, though, we have a three-way tie on six points. In that scenario, Sweden advances no matter what. If either wins by multiple goals, they are both through and Mexico is out.

The only way Mexico can come out on the right end of a three-way tie is if both games are decided by one goal, and if Mexico scores at least as many goals in defeat as Germany does in victory. (That statement is based on a bunch of complex tiebreaker scenarios, which you can work out on your own if you wish.)

The other possible three-way tie is on three points, if both Sweden and Germany lose. Similar goal differential permutations would come into play there – the simplest being that South Korea is through with a multi-goal win (and Sweden loss by any score).

Group G*

Thursday, 10 a.m.: Belgium (6|6) vs. England (6|6)

England and Belgium aren’t just through; they’re level on both goal differential and goals scored heading into their Matchday 3 showdown. So a draw automatically sends the tiebreakers to fair play. A win for either team, obviously, sends it to the top of the group.

The big question here, though, is whether either team wants to win the group. Because the most likely scenarios in the seven other groups would leave the left side of the bracket – to which the Group G winner goes – significantly stronger than the right:

(Screenshot: FiveThirtyEight)

And if they’d rather finish second, and if they’re tied late in Thursday’s game … the tiebreaker would be fair play. England is on two yellow cards. Belgium is on three. Both could have incentive to kick the you know what out of each other late in the match.

Group H*

Thursday, 2 p.m.: Senegal (4|1) vs. Colombia (3|2) | Japan (4|1) vs. Poland (0|-4)

Colombia can advance with a win, or with a draw and a Japan loss. It can top the group with a win and Japan draw or loss.

Japan and Senegal can each clinch a knockout round place with a draw or win.

[More: Little pre-World Cup intrigue, but Group H has delivered]

For Japan and Senegal, the situation is very similar to that of Portugal and Spain in Group B. They drew each other, and won their openers by the same score (2-1). So if they claim identical Matchday 3 results, discipline, and possibly lots-drawing, would determine first place (win or draw) or progression/elimination (loss). Japan is sitting on three yellow cards, with Senegal on five.

Group A and B

Uruguay beat Russia to top Group A, with the Russians following in second.

Late drama took Spain to the top of Group B, with Portugal finishing second on the goals scored tiebreaker.


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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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