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Ambiguous Rules Could Lead to World Cup Controversy Involving USMNT, Portugal and Ghana

fifa world cup Ambiguous Rules Could Lead to World Cup Controversy Involving USMNT, Portugal and Ghana

FIFA has drawn the ire of fans for issues off the pitch surrounding the World Cup. However, because of ambiguous tiebreaker rules, that focus could shift to the field of play in Brazil. Under very particular circumstances, a three-way tie could lead to confusion and more criticism for the governing body.

The problem arises in Article 39.5, where the laws for tiebreakers are presented:

“The ranking of each team in each group will be determined as follows: a) greatest number of points obtained in all group matches; b) goal difference in all group matches; c) greatest number of goals scored in all group matches. If two or more teams are equal on the basis of the above three criteria, their rankings will be determined as follows: d) greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned; e) goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned; f) greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned; g) drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee.”

While these rules seem relatively comprehensive, problems would arise in some a very particular situation. In the following example in Group H of a three-way tie, these rules are not clear enough to come to a conclusive result:

Ghana 1 – 0 USA
Germany 1 – 0 Portugal
USA 2 – 1 Portugal
Germany 2 – 1 Ghana
Portugal 1 – 0 Ghana
Germany 1 – 0 USA

The group standings would then appear as follows:

TEAM PL W D L GF GA GD PTS
 
GERMANY 3 3 0 0 4 1 3 9
USA 3 1 0 2 2 3 -1 3
PORTUGAL 3 1 0 2 2 3 -1 3
GHANA 3 1 0 2 2 3 -1 3

Under this example, Germany would obviously advance, while USA, Portugal and Ghana each have 3 points, a goal difference of -1, and 2 goals scored (see group standings below). Since they are level on all of these, the rules state that the tiebreaking moves on to just looking at matches between these three sides.

TEAM PL W D L GF GA GD PTS
 
USA 3 1 0 1 2 2 0 3
PORTUGAL 3 1 0 1 2 2 0 3
GHANA 3 1 0 1 1 1 0 3

When taking just these games into account, they are still tied at 3 points, and goal difference. We could partially break this tie based on the USA and Portugal having more goals scored. However it is unclear within the rules how to proceed from there. Since this procedure fails to fully break the tie, there are a few options that would satisfy the rules:

1.  Ghana is ranked 4th (because the tie is at least partially resolved) and a new round of tie-breaking is performed between just USA and Portugal, ranking USA 2nd since they beat Portugal, and ranking Portugal 3rd.
2.  Ghana is ranked 4th (because the tie is at least partially resolved) and lots are drawn between USA and Portugal.
3.  Lots drawn between the 3 teams.

The first interpretation seems to be the most logical and most likely of the three. It fully resolves the matter as it logically continues the current tie-breaking procedure one lever further, as we would just look at the result between USA and Portugal since Ghana has been ranked lower. However the problem arises from the fact that FIFA rules do not state any correct procedure for dealing with this issue. While this is a highly unlikely scenario, it could potentially cause major controversy if it is not cleared up before the start of the World Cup.

This entry was posted in FIFA, US, US National Team, World Cup, World Cup 2014. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Ambiguous Rules Could Lead to World Cup Controversy Involving USMNT, Portugal and Ghana

  1. Toby says:

    All this nonsense about tied groups. The USA will be bottom of their group. I actually feel sorry for the US players with the hype machine following them about. There is a lot of crap that this US is the deepest team in US soccer history. No it isn’t as there are fewer US players in European teams compared to the 2002 team, which I think had vastly superior players. Claudio Reyna is still the best US player in history when it comes to actual quality. US are in a group with probably the best team in Africa, best team in Europe and the team with the best player. All the US has is MLS players.

    • David says:

      Cool story bro.

    • CH says:

      Kinda agree with Toby i dont think this team is as good as the 2010 or 2002 team. And i do think that they are the least talented in this group. And i do think they will finish last. But at the end of the day they dont play the game on paper. And i could see somebody besides Germany taking points off of Portugal.

      • David says:

        That’s a very fair assessment, CH. And Toby is obviously entitled to that opinion as well. But the whole post just reeks of sour grapes or something. There are some very bold statements as well.

        But if the USMNT knows anything, it’s that these kinds of opinions will always exist of them. The European argument, the quality player argument or whatever else.

        Fact of the matter is, this is labeled the group of death, and for good reason. Just like in 2006, the rankings and the high powered teams (on paper) are all present. It didn’t work out well for them then, it may not again. but the fact of the matter is as long as CONCONCAF and AFC are in the same pot, there’s a damn good chance whichever group the USA is drawn into will have a good chance of being the group of death. They’re part of the reason it is.

        • CH says:

          Well i just happen to think the US got the worst possible African team. While Klinsmann is trying to change the style of play, the US is primarily an athletic team. The US matches up well against north African teams because they arent as athletic but vs west african teams that are more athletic and(in ghana or ivory coast) skilled its more of a challenge.

          Sorry for hijacking the thread tho, i understand that this could happen in any group.

          BTW i wont be surprised if the 1st two games mirror the 2006 WC. I could see the US losing to Ghana 2-0 and then tying or beating Portugal. Just my opinion.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      Horribly off-topic post. Don’t think USA will do any good? Fine. Pick another group. Any other group. The same can happen anywhere.

    • Tom says:

      It’s not a question of whether the USA will live up to expectations. It’s a potential fault in the tournament rules, and could involve any combination of teams because we know that in football nothing is certain until the final whistle.

  2. yespage says:

    Umm… this could involve any group.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      Yup.

      • Mark Switzer says:

        I didn’t want to muck this up with multiple examples, as it’s a pretty complicated thin as it is. And since I’m American and this is a US based web site, I went with the US for my example.

        Overall, the problem is that the scenario can happen. Many people who don’t trust FIFA might think it is left ambiguous intentionally, so that they can interpret the rule however they see fit if the issue ever does arise, essentially choosing which team they want to put through.

  3. Ben says:

    Its also certainly possible that the US team is the best and deepest its ever been and it will still finish last in the group simply due to the unfortunate draw.

    2002 team had 11 players playing in Europe, 12 in MLS. Breakdown this year will end up very similar (not that that’s the only measure of quality).

    I think you can make a pretty decent argument Bradley is just as good, if not better than Reyna.

    • yespage says:

      And player quality is not nearly as important as team quality and coaching. England proves that time and time again.

      The US team was on a roll with very good team play. Time will tell if that shows up on the pitch against some great squads.

  4. DavidSpur says:

    Maybe I’m missing something in what you’re saying, but it is clear to me that the US would be second as they scored more goals vs Portugal (2-1) and scored more goals than Ghana when you look at the scores between the three teams on 3 points.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      Follow the ranking and ti-breaking criteria IN ORDER, and after criteria “f”, you will at best have eliminated Ghana due to lower number of goals scored.

      But, the next step as per the rule is NOT to iterate back through the other criteria for USA and Portugal, but to go ahead with the next criteria, criteria “g”. That would be drawing lots.

      I imagine the next step after “f” and before “g” (drawing lots) OUGHT to be to iterate through “d”, “e” and “f” again, with just the remaining 2 tied teams (USA and Portugal), but the rule does not read that way. I think it is poorly written, and thus leaves it open to 3 separate honest interpretations.

      • DavidSpur says:

        This is where your argument is flawed. You’re assuming that there is rigidity in the ‘a’ to ‘f’ tie breakers. However, after each team is eliminated using the tie breakers, the scenario would revert back to ‘a’ –– meaning, in your example, the USA would go through.

        • Mark Switzer says:

          I understand your viewpoint, David. And I tend to agree that it should be done the way you have explained it.

          BUT, this is kind of my whole point. I presented 3 different scenarios of how anyone could honestly and accurately interpret the rule. All 3 of them lead to different outcomes because they must make assumptions.

          MY assumption is that there is rigidity to the rule (which I think is the most literal reading of the rule)

          YOUR assuming is that there is an iterative approach to applying criteria a-g. I agree agree agree that that is how it SHOULD be, but read the rule closely. It never mentions any sort of iterative process.

          The question is, what assumptions will FIFA make when interpreting the rule? FIFA shold answer that BEFORE the scenario arises (like before the World Cup starts). Otherwise, whichever way they interpret it, they will be accused of selecting the outcome that most helps their own favored teams.

  5. San Fransiscan says:

    This happened in 1994 in Italy’s group.

    This can happen in any group, to any team, including Germany. I don’t know why the focus is on the US, Portugal, and Ghana. This rule has been there for as long as I can remember, I don’t know why the sudden interest in the subject.

  6. Pakapala says:

    Mark Switzer wrote:
    “The problem arises in Article 39.5, where the laws for tiebreakers are presented”

    Actually there is no problem arising anywhere but in your confused mind. The tie-breaking rules are pretty clear and had you taken the time to actually read AND understand them, you would realize that in the scenario you drew up, Germany and USA would go through without any need for drawing lots by the way.
    The real problem is that you decide, for reasons only you know, to stop using the tie-breakers after the 3-way tie.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      My mind is not at all confused. The first of my 3 possible interpretations of the rules comes to the same conclusion you did, and in the same way.

      While that interpretation makes the most sense to you and to me, the rules do not actually say that is the way to do it.

      The rule only explains how to rank teams based on results of ALL group matches. And then, if teams are tied based on the above criteria for ALL group matches, the rules explains how to break the tie by considering just the matches played between the tied teams.

      Nowhere does the rule actually say that this rule should be applied RECURSIVELY. You and I both think it would make sense to apply it recursively, but the rule does not actually state that it should be applied recursively.

      Bottom line, the rule never says, “and if any teams are still tied, loop through the tie-breakers again.”

      In my example, following tiebreakers (a)-(f) does not fully resolve the 3-way tie, and so tie-breaker (g) should be applied–drawing lots.

      • San Fransiscan says:

        Actually given the case you provided, the US will go through because they have beaten Portugal.

        • Mark Switzer says:

          Why do you assume this? Just follow the rule and rank the teams from criteria “a” through “g”:
          a) Germany takes 1st in points. The other 3 are tied on points (in ALL matches played).
          b) Other 3 teams are also tied on goal difference (in ALL matches played).
          c) Other 3 teams scored the same number of goals (in ALL matches played) and so are still tied.

          USA, Portugal and Ghana are tied thus far. So, now for the tie-breaker rules.
          “In the group matches between the teams concerned” (that is USA, Portugal and Ghana):
          d) All 3 teams have the same number of points (3).
          e) All 3 teams have the same goal difference (0)
          f) Ghana has the lowest goals scored (1), and USA and Portugal have the same number (2).

          Has the tied been resolved yet? No. Only partially in that Ghana could be placed below USA and Portugal. So, what do we do next? The rule says we now go to criteria “g”. It does not say to recursivelt go through critera “d”, “e” and “f” for the remaining 2 tied teams. So:

          g) draw lots.

          Now, do we draw lots between only the USA and Portugal, because we at least partially broke the tie enough to drop Ghana to the bottom? Or, do we say it’s all or nothing–the tie was not fully broken so we draw lots between USA, Portugal AND Ghana?

          Or, do we say that, even though the rule does not say do do this, we will go ahead and recursivelt run through “d”, “e” and “f”? I agree that this recursion makes the most sense. But the rule does NOT say to do that. It could be interpreted as so saying, but my other 2 interpretations are just as valid.

      • Pakapala says:

        The answer to your so-called dilemna is in the rule itself. The rule stated according to your article above that “If TWO OR MORE teams are equal on the basis of the above three criteria, their rankings will be determined as follows”

        In other words you do this if 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, however many teams are tied.

        It follows that if the process at any point break the tie between the 3 teams you then have a tie between 2 teams to deal with that needs breaking. Therefore you have to apply the process for the 2 teams. Rule itself says if “TWO OR MORE TEAMS ARE EQUAL” after a) to c) are applied.

        In tie-breaking rules each step has to be completely exhausted before moving to the next step, It’s only when a) fail that you use b) and so on.

        • Mark Switzer says:

          Not necessarily. The rule says, if 2 or more teams are tied AFTER APPLYING A-C, then apply d-g on those tied teams to try to break the tie. It does NOT say: “and do this recursively”. That may be implied–MAY BE. But that is an assumption.

          For the sake of argument, let’s say that it is supposed to be recursive. So, at “f” Ghana is placed last. Well, BEFORE we go recursive, we need to look at “g”, which says to draw lots. Even if we went iteratively, there is no way to iterate through it, because the last step PRIOR to iterating would be to draw lots–which I assume would break the tie without fail :).

  7. Mark Switzer says:

    For all who think, in my scenario, that USA finishes above Portugal because USA beat Portugal, take note. Read the rule and follow the criteria one at a time.

    After criteria “f”, when Ghana is able to be ranked last and USA and Portugal are tied, you all want to stop and go back through the criteria starting at “d” again. But the rule does not say to do that. It says to go on to the next criteria, “g”, the drawing of lots.

    Nothing in the rule says that the criteria should be recursively applied to further break ties within ties. You are all assuming that is what should be done, and understandably so. Other sports competitions explicitly spell out to do it that way, and it is pretty logical to do it that way. I agree 100% on that.

    But, FIFA’s rule does NOT say to break ties that way. it leaves it vague, so that any of 3 possible interpretations are totally acceptable.

    1. Ghana is ranked 4th (because the tie is at least partially resolved) and a new round of tie-breaking is performed between just USA and Portugal, ranking USA 2nd since they beat Portugal, and ranking Portugal 3rd.

    2. Ghana is ranked 4th (because the tie is at least partially resolved) and lots are drawn between USA and Portugal.

    3. Lots drawn between the 3 teams (because the tie is not completely resolved).

    If this scenario ever does arise, who really thinks FIFA is above cherry-picking the interpretation that sees the team through they WANT to see through?

    • Mark Switzer says:

      I am about to sound arrogant, but that is not my intent. This really is not as un-complicated as you would think. With your assumption of recursively running through the tie-breaking steps, it becomes more straightforward and always solvable without controversy.

      But you have to read the rule as it currently is written. And you can’t just assume it will be done the way it ought to be done–because the rule doesn’t say to do that.

      Just step from “a” through “g”, without repeating any of the steps (because the rule does not say to go back through steps), and tell me how the teams finish.

      If you do this, and can spell it out step by step like I have to support my three interpretations, then PLEASE do. I would love to see it. But here’s the arrogant part: it’s not going to happen! My reasoning is solid and without error.

      Until FIFA clears this up, there is no way to know which of the 3 interpretations they will apply. So, let’s hope they tell us how they would handle this BEFORE the situation arises so that everyone knows the rules going into it.

      • Mark Switzer says:

        I love coming across as arrogant, because then I can get humbled. Today is no exception. I was wrong about one point. You know, about things where I said “it’s not going to happen!”? Well, it happened. I discovered my own error. (I really wan’t actually trying to be arrogant, but I sure was wrong.)

        The two viable interpretations are:

        Option 1. Iterate through the tie-breakers a second time, this time for the USA and Potugal, in which case USA finishes 2nd and Portugal 3rd.
        Option 2. Draw lots between USA and Portugal.

        Those are unchanged and I will stand by them until death.

        The error is with my third option, drawing lots between USA, Portugal and Ghana. My reasonong was that, since the 3-way tie was only partially broken, one could claim that lots should be drawn between all three teams. The problem is, for no other criteria (a-f) do we keep evaluating a team once we are able to break that team out of the tie. So why should criteria g be any different? It shouldn’t. For each criteria, we only evaluate the remaining tied teams. To assume otherwise would be reading into the rule things that are not written in the rule. (Proponents of Option 1 above are reading things that are not written, too, with regads to iterating through the critera; but at least they are doing it because it is easy to believe that that is what FIA meant to write.)

  8. Mark Switzer says:

    I can’t get my posts to show up in reply to San Fransiscan, who said this same thing happened to Italy in 1994. So here it is:

    First, for Italy in 1994. That group’s final standings was not complicated enough to cause a problem. It didn’t ever hit the area of the rule that is up for interpretation.

    With 3 goals scored, Mexico won the group using criteria “c” (greatest goals scored amongst ALL group games).

    With 1 goal scored, Norway lost the group using the same criteria “c”.

    Ireland and Italy were still tied at this point, so since Ireland beat Italy, the tie was broken with criteria “d” (“greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned” — Ireland 3 points, Italy 0 points).

    This was very straightforward.

    As to your other point, of course this could happen in any group. I focused on a single group because I needed to try to keep it simple, since the issue is confusing enough as it is without trying to go across several groups. I went with the US group specifically because I am an American, and I frankly care the most about that group. I agree I should have stated somewhere that it could happen in any group, but I thought that would be rather obvious.

  9. San Fransiscan says:

    This rule has been around for a while now. Again, given the same case, USA will qualify.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      This rule has been around for while, sure. But no group has had the results similar to how I have outlined them. If that ever does happen, the rule will NOT be sufficient without making assumptions. And if assumptions are made, there are still 3 legitimate outcomes depending on what those assumptions are.

      Your logic is not flawed to say that the USA would go through. I listed that as one of the possible interpretations myself.

      The logic for the other interpretations is not flawed either, however. If you think it is, read the rule closely and read my explanation closely again, including in these comments. Then explain clearly why the logic in the other 2 scenarios is flawed. I think you will only be able to do so if you ASSUME there is an iterative approach to the tie-breaker rules (steps a-g). But, because the rule does not state anywhere that such an iterative approach is to be taken, it is entirely logical to assume that an iterative approach is not to be taken. (The rule doesn’t say to do it, so why would we do it?)

    • Mark Switzer says:

      Now, let’s take my scenario, which involves a 3-way tie even after criteria a, b and c are applied.

      A-C involve ALL 6 group matches:
      a – Germany has 9 points and is ranked #1. USA, Ghana and Portugal have identical points (3 points, from 1 Win and 2 Losses), so they are all ranked #2 so far.

      Only for ranking USA, Ghana and Portugal now (but still looking at ALL group matches for B and C):
      b – All 3 teams have identical goal difference, so they are all ranked the same still.
      c – All 3 teams have identical number of goals scored, so they are all ranked the same still.

      D-G involve only matches played between the tied teams, USA, Ghana and Portugal (3 games):
      d – All 3 teams have identical points (3 points from 1 Win and 1 Loss), so they are all ranked the same still.
      e – All 3 teams have identical goal difference, so they are all ranked the same still.
      f – Goals scored: USA and Portugal 2, Ghana 1. So, Ghana seems to be ranked #4. USA and Portugal are both still ranked #2 at this point.

      So, now what do we do?

  10. San Fransiscan says:

    Have a look at 1994 world cup group E.

    All teams finished with 4 points and a 0 goal difference.

    Norway were last because they scored less, and Mexico were first because they scored the highest number of goals.

    Italy and Ireland scored the same number amount of goals, but Ireland had beaten Italy, so Ireland got 2nd place and Italy got 3rd.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      That example is too simplistic to cause problems. If we go through the criteria a-g ONCE, the tie is easily resolved.

      A-C involve ALL 6 group matches:
      a – All 4 teams have identical points, so they are all ranked the same still.
      b – All 4 teams have identical goal difference, so they are all ranked the same still.
      c – Goals scored: Mexico 3, Ireland and Italy 2, Norway 1. So, Mexico is ranked #1 and Norway is ranked #4. Italy and Ireland are both still ranked #3 at this point.

      D-G involve only matches played between the tied teams, Italy and Ireland (1 game):
      d – Ireland got 3 points (they won), and Italy 0 points (they lost). Tie is broken, Ireland is ranked #2 and Italy is ranked #3.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      Now, let’s take my actual scenario, which involves a 3-way tie even after criteria a, b and c are applied.

      A-C involve ALL 6 group matches:
      a – Germany has 9 points and is ranked #1. USA, Ghana and Portugal have identical points (3 points, from 1 Win and 2 Losses), so they are all ranked #2 so far.

      Only for ranking USA, Ghana and Portugal now (but still looking at ALL group matches for B and C):
      b – All 3 teams have identical goal difference, so they are all ranked the same still.
      c – All 3 teams have identical number of goals scored, so they are all ranked the same still.

      D-G involve only matches played between the tied teams, USA, Ghana and Portugal (3 games):
      d – All 3 teams have identical points (3 points from 1 Win and 1 Loss), so they are all ranked the same still.
      e – All 3 teams have identical goal difference, so they are all ranked the same still.
      f – Goals scored: USA and Portugal 2, Ghana 1. So, Ghana seems to be ranked #4. USA and Portugal are both still ranked #2 at this point.

      So, now what do we do?

    • Mark Switzer says:

      Some sports competitions explicitly state that once a partial tie is broken, immediately restart the tie-breaker process for the remaining tied teams. (This is the logic you are using to get to your conclusion.)

      Other sports competitions explicitly state that when a partial tie is broken, all the tie-breaker steps need to be run through to completion before looping back.

      FIFA’s World Cup rule, however, doesn’t even say the tie-breaker steps are to be re-run AT ALL. It is silent on that. It just says, process the criteria in order from a to g until all ties are broken.

    • Mark Switzer says:

      So, there are 3 ways to interpret FIFA’s rule for what to do next:

      Option 1: Loop through the tie-breaker criteria once more, between USA and Portugal.
      Strength: It’s what makes most sense to most people. No need to flip a coin when legitimate sporting options stil exist.
      Weakness: We are assuming the criteria will iterate, when in fact the rule says no such thing.

      Option 2: Apply criteria g to the remaining tied teams. That’s what the rule says to do, so do it. Draw lots between USA and Portugal.
      Strength: It is literally what the rule says to do.
      Weakness: We are assuming that the rule is correctly worded, but it is very possible that the intent was something that would make more sense (like Option 1 for example).

      Option 3: Apply criteria g, and draw lots between USA, Ghana and Portugal. The tie was only PARTIALL broken, so we have to draw lots amongst all the tied teams we are evaluating. I have acutally found a logical flaw in this one that invalidates it as an option:
      Once any team can be uniquely ranked, that team is not to be evaluated anymore. If applying criteria d (number of points from matches between tied teams) had put Ghana in 4th place, would we include Ghana still when we applied criteria e (goal difference from matches between tied teams)? Of course not. So, why would it be any different for f and g?

  11. Ram says:

    Sorry guys,the U.S.donot had a formidable Football or soccer team period.Watch out for Ghana.

  12. Olivier says:

    Ahahah… I don’t see what’s so unclear… It’s been like that for so many fifa competitions and there was never any problem.

    Its simple…USA and portugal scored 2 each between them while ghana scored 1. So its between the 2 first. They would draw.

    Is this a matter of americans panicking (and not really watching enough football) because they are in a tough group so they worry that a “mistake” will eliminate them ?

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