If that seems absurd, well, yeah, it is. The two Group H teams were tied on points (4), goal differential (0) and goals scored (4). They had drawn the game between them, eliminating the head-to-head tiebreaker. That left only two options: fair play or lots.
So while it’s absurd, it’s understandable. Discipline, or sportsmanship, or whatever you want to call it, is a slightly better way to determine a group than a random drawing or a coin flip. Slightly.
But are there other options that FIFA could consider?
The pros and cons of yellow cards
Fair play is used to discourage rough tactics, like the ones we often see from inferior teams to disrupt more talented ones. We saw them, for example, from Switzerland against Brazil. They take the beauty out of the game.
As some have pointed out, though, yellow cards are a subjective measure, often depending on referee mood swings and game states. Neither Senegal nor Japan ever played dirty. So, the first suggestion … how about an objective measure?
Shots on goal or corners
The idea of using yellow and red cards is to reward teams who play the right way. So what about an objective measure that rewards attacking play, such as total shots, or shots on goal, or corners, or corner differential?
The problem here is that a shots on goal tiebreaker, unlike yellow cards, would be susceptible to scheming. Let’s say Senegal were down two shots on goal to Japan late in Thursday’s simultaneous games. It could have started lofting soft shots at the goalkeeper from 40 yards out with five or 10 minutes remaining. You can’t have a tiebreaker that fundamentally changes the objective of the sport.
(For the nerds: The solution to this problem would be to decide on a common Expected Goals formula and use that instead of shots or shots on goal.)
FIFA Rankings or qualifying performance
How about just rewarding the “better team”?
Nah, that’s dumb. First of all, the FIFA rankings are abominable. And the whole point of the World Cup is that it’s a clean slate. The best teams from different confederations come together to decide who’s better on the field. A tiebreaker that essentially puts them on uneven ground going into the tournament is contradictory.
Result against top team in group
In some sporting competitions, one of the tiebreakers is a team’s record or result against the team at the top of the standings – or, if the two teams are tied atop the standings, the top team below them.
Another way of doing this is to conceptualize a three-team “mini-league” that excludes the worst team in the group. In Group H, for example, with Senegal and Japan level on every tiebreaker, we’d ignore the two teams’ results against Poland, and run through all the tiebreakers again considering only their results against each other and Colombia. (Japan would have advance.)
This could be problematic in a four-team single round-robin, though, because a first-place team that had already qualified might rest players against one of the tied teams but not the other.
Off-day penalty shootout
This is the best solution. Everybody hates the penalty shootout. But it’s better than yellow cards, or anything else on this list. The issue is when to hold it.
One idea would be to gather the two teams two days before their final game if there were any chance they’d find themselves level on all other tiebreakers. They’d contest a normal penalty shootout, and the winner would go into its final game knowing it held the final tiebreaker.
The better idea is to hold the penalty shootout if necessary the day after the final group games. Can you imagine Senegal and Japan flying to the stadium closest to equidistant between their Matchday 3 sites and holding a shootout to determine who goes through and who goes home? It’d be must-watch TV.
FIFA, please, heed this advice.
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