FIFA uses a fairly simple World Cup tiebreaker system to decide which team goes through to the knockout stage in the event of a tie in the group standings.
If two teams are tied on points after the final group game, here’s the order of tiebreakers to decide the standings.
Tiebreaker #1: Goal difference in all 3 group matches
You subtract a team’s total goals allowed from its total goals scored, and you get its goal difference. If Team A outscored its opponents by 2 and Team B outscored its opponents by 1, Team A goes through.
Tiebreaker #2: Goals scored in all 3 group matches
In most scenarios goal difference breaks the tie. But in the event that two teams have the same goal difference, the team that scored the most goals goes through. There’s only been one situation in the last four World Cups where a team was eliminated because of the goals scored tiebreaker.
Tiebreaker #3: Head-to-head result
In the unlikely event that two teams are tied on goal difference and goals scored, whoever won the group game between the two teams goes through. It seems like this should be the first tiebreaker, but it rarely comes into play.
Tiebreaker #4: Goal difference in head-to-head games (only applies if more than two teams are tied)
This is redundant if there are only two teams tied on points.
Tiebreaker #5 Goals scored in head-to-head games (only used if more than two teams are tied)
Final tiebreaker: Coin flip
This has never happened in the World Cup under the current format. If two teams have the same goal difference, the same number of goals scored, and tied the group game against each other, FIFA will “draw lots” to decide which teams advances.
It’s the cruelest possible way for these things to be decided, but it’s possible in a number of groups at the 2014 World Cup — including the U.S.’s group.
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