Fair play is a key tiebreaker at the World Cup — here's how it works

Alex Morton/Getty ImagesWhen teams have the same number of points after three matches of the group stage, a series of tiebreakers are employed — and they could have huge implications on the final standings of Group G should England and Belgium play to a draw on Thursday.
  • The 2018 World Cup is about to head to the knockout bracket, with teams jockeying for position in the final matches of the group stage.
  • At the end of the group stage, tiebreakers will be employed to determine the standings in a group should the teams at the top of the table have the same number of points.
  • While the first tiebreakers are relatively standard (goal differential, goals scored), Senegal was eliminated from the World Cup by the fair-play designation, which could also determine the winner of another group.

The 2018 World Cup is nearing the end of the group stage, with teams vying to either win their group or at the very least move on to the knockout round.

With teams playing just three games in the group stage, it’s not uncommon for there to be ties within the four-member groups. When that’s the case, FIFA turns to a series of tiebreakers to determine the standings – a necessary but sometimes cruel reality for teams on the losing end.

Here is how the standings of the group stage are determined, starting with points and working its way all the way down to a random drawing:

  1. Greatest number of points obtained in all group matches (three points for a win, one for a tie);
  2. Goal difference in all group matches;
  3. Greatest number of goals scored in all group matches.
  4. Greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned;
  5. Goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned;
  6. Greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned;
  7. Greater number of points obtained in the fair-play conduct of the teams based on yellow and red cards received in all group matches;
  8. Drawing of lots by FIFA.

If teams are tied on points, differential, and goals scored, things begin to get complicated, as happened Thursday with Japan and Senegal and could be the case should Belgium and England draw in their Thursday match.

Both Senegal and Japan lost their final match of group play, and the two were tied on points, goal differential, and goals scored. They also tied when they played each other earlier in the tournament. But Senegal had two more yellow cards than Japan, so Senegal is going home and Japan is advancing to the knockout round as determined by “points obtained in the fair-play conduct.”

The team with the higher (less negative) score wins the fair-play tiebreaker.

Here’s how fouls are scored for the tiebreaker:

  • Yellow card: -1
  • Red card for two cautions: -3
  • Straight red card: -4
  • Yellow card and straight red card: -5

While a trip to the knockout stage is not on the line, the winner of Group G could also be determined by yellow cards.

Belgium and England are tied atop Group G with six points apiece. Further, both teams have a goal differential of positive six, with eight goals for and two goals against.

Should either team beat the other on Thursday, the winner will win the group with nine points, and the loser will advance as the runner-up. But if England and Belgium play to a draw, the teams will remain tied on points, goal differential, and goals scored.

That means the winner of the group would be determined by fair play. As things stand, England is ahead of Belgium, with a score of minus two thanks to two yellow cards, compared with Belgium’s minus three on three yellows. Should England pick up another yellow card en route to a draw, the winner of the group would be randomly selected in a “drawing of lots.”

In an odd twist of events, coming in second in the group appears to be the more advantageous position, as the side of the bracket that will host the Group G winner looks to be the more formidable one so far.

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