The 2014 FIFA World Cup is just a week away. The opening match from Sao Paulo between Brazil and Croatia is the first of each team’s three group stage matches. The first round of the tournament, or the group stage, consists of eight, four-team round-robin tournaments. The top two teams from each group advance. Sounds a lot simpler than it really is though. Due to the fact that most of the 32 teams participating in the World Cup are incredibly evenly matched, ties will not be out of the ordinary. But it’s not ties within matches that cause confusion, it’s ties in the standings that can convolute the entire process.
FIFA has seven tie breaking procedures to determine which teams will advance out of the group stage and on to the knockout rounds in the event of teams landing on an even number of points. Understanding the process will not only make each match more enjoyable to watch, but it’ll also make you the smartest guy in the room. So, let’s break them down.
a) greatest number of points obtained in all group matches
The simplest way to determine which two teams move on is by points. Winning teams are awarded three points, ties earn each team one point, and losses are zero points. Seven points guarantees any side a trip to the knockout stage. Anything less, and we’re likely looking at a tie.
b) goal difference in all group matches
The key tiebreaker in almost every group will be goal differential. Goal differential is found by simply subtracting a teams’ goals against from its goals scored. What makes goal differential as the primary tiebreaker so interesting is that it rewards teams for running up the score. All wins earn three points, however a one goal win may not be nearly as valuable as a win by a margin of three or four. Whether it’s a teams’ opening match or the group stage finale, every minute matters and any goal can be the difference between advancement and elimination.
c) greatest number of goals scored in all group matches
The third tiebreaker is FIFA’s subtle way to reward teams for playing 4-3 matches rather than 1-0. While the goal differential is +1 in both, the team that scores four puts themselves in a much better position to advance.
d) greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned
This is basically the “head-to-head” argument. If two teams are tied, and one beat the other, the winner moves on. It gets a little more difficult when three teams are tied. The easiest way to figure who would advance using this tiebreaker is to break it down game by game. Only games involving tied teams count. So if team A, B, and C are tied all games against team D are thrown out. Keep in mind though that this is the fourth tiebreaker. Head to head is not as important as goal differential. This is unusual to American sports fans, so it’s better to know now than when it knocks your favorite team out.
e) goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned
Just like the previous tiebreaker, matches included non-tied teams are disregarded. This will only break three way ties as a tie between two teams would have been broken by the previous tiebreaker. The difference between this one and tiebreaker b is that it takes away matches including non tied teams. In other words, it would take out either the dominant side or the terrible side. A team that beat every one, or a team that beat no one will no longer factor into the fate of the tied nations.
f) greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned
Once again, only teams involved are taken into consideration. Rarely will it get this far, but if it does it is in everyone’s best interest that the final match related tiebreaker solves the quandary.
g) drawing of lots by the FIFA Organizing Committee
The old coin flip. Only once in the 84 year history of the FIFA World Cup have lots been drawn to break a tie. Dear soccer gods, do not let this year be the second time.