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:
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.
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.