After finishing up with an identical record to Senegal in Group H, Japan go through to the last 16 by virtue of having picked up fewer bookings. They collected four over the course of the first round; the Senegalese got six. It's the first time a World Cup group has come down to fair play, and it's not a bad idea at all, I'd say. It's true that yellow cards are shown in line with somewhat variable criteria and can be open to dispute, but the initiative of promoting a clean game by this means is something I like. There have been times when I've wondered about using total corners won and conceded to separate sides, as that is ultimately an indicator of the time a team has spent attacking and defending. But I think the cards idea is better. Incidentally, Senegal would have qualified had it been decided by corners.
I like cards tie-breaker, but maiden outing leaves bad taste in mouth
It's just a shame that the first time the disciplinary-record tie-breaker gets an outing, it is to reward a Japanese team who, in the closing stages of their game against Poland, showed scant commitment to the ideals of fair play. They were well aware of their advantage over Senegal in the cards department and so, after Yerry Mina had given Colombia the lead over the Africans, the Samurai Blue settled for defeat to the Poles by a single goal, rather than risking letting in a crucial second by going after an equaliser. Poland were game, of course, because they could at least be sure of going home with one win to their name. The upshot was that, for the final quarter of an hour, we witnessed a 'non-aggression pact' that saw the first side to reach the knockout stage thanks to fair play do so less than honourably.
The format we have can lead to situations like this...
We'd already seen something similar in Denmark-France, a game in which the teams played out a 0-0 draw that suited them both down to the ground. Some time ago, I met a Chilean mathematician who had devised a competition format that prevented these things. It was devilishly complicated, but I put him in touch with Fifa, he presented it to them, and I guess it's on file somewhere at Zurich HQ. For now, though, we have the format that we have, one that at times brings about the odd unseemly episode of this nature, or gives rise to situations in which two teams who are already through, like England and Belgium yesterday, make nine changes each. But it's been a good World Cup, one that has left Spain with a highly favourable path to the final, by the way. Now we just need La Roja to get back into gear.