What happens if teams end up with the same number of points in the World Cup group stage?
FIFA’s preferred World Cup tiebreakers differ from those used in other competitions, such as UEFA’s European Championship.
If two or more countries finish level on points in the World Cup group stage, overall goal difference is the chief tiebreaker used by FIFA, global football’s governing body, to separate the teams. Goal difference has been in force in the tournament since 1970 - having taken over from a marginally different rule - and remains in place despite many other football competitions now instead opting to use sides’ head-to-head record to decide points ties.
UEFA, European football’s ruling authority, has a clear preference for head-to-head, for example. It’s the number-one tiebreaker in major UEFA tournaments such as the European Championship and the Champions League. Fans of the Spanish game will also be used to comparing teams’ head-to-head records, as it’s used to split clubs level on points in LaLiga.
It is among the potential tiebreakers at the World Cup, too, but only after other avenues have been exhausted.
World Cup: group-stage tiebreakers
The World Cup currently has a list of seven group-stage tiebreakers, which can be divided into four groups: overall record; head-to-head; fair play; and luck of the draw. Starting with goal difference, and in descending order of priority, FIFA’s methods for deciding points ties are:
1. Goal difference
In the history of the World Cup, 13 teams have been knocked out of the group stage on overall goal difference - or by the rule’s very similar predecessor, goal average, which entailed a slightly different calculation. While goal difference is worked out by subtracting the number of goals a team has conceded from the number it has scored, goal average is calculated by dividing goals scored by goals conceded. For example, if a country ends up with five goals for and two against, it has a goal difference of +3 and a goal average of 2.5.
FIFA began using goal average as a tiebreaker at World Cups after playoffs were needed to separate teams level on points in three out of the four first-round groups at the 1958 finals in Sweden. (Gallingly for the losers of two of those playoffs - Hungary and Czechoslovakia - they would have progressed had the system been in force at that tournament.) Goal average was used in 1962 and 1966, before being replaced by goal difference ahead of Mexico ‘70.
Twelve years after its introduction, goal difference was at the centre of one of the World Cup’s most infamous episodes, when it came into play to eliminate Algeria from Spain ‘82. After beating Chile 3-2 in their final Group 2 game, the North Africans’ future then depended on the outcome of West Germany and Austria’s meeting the following day - a game that became known as the ‘Disgrace of Gijón’.
With the Germans and the Austrians aware in advance that goal difference would take them both through at Algeria’s expense if the former won by a one or two-goal margin, West Germany claimed a 1-0 victory in which the sides clearly adopted a non-aggression pact after Horst Hrubesch scored the opening goal. The match prompted FIFA to schedule a group’s final games at the same time at all future World Cups.
The most recent nation to be eliminated on goal difference was Portugal, who at Brazil 2014 were edged out by the United States for second place in Group C.
2. Goals scored
If countries win an equal number of points and have the same goal difference, the team that has scored the most goals comes out on top. This has eliminated sides from the World Cup on four occasions. Most notably, Italy went on to win the trophy in 1982 after edging out Cameroon by virtue of the fact they had netted one goal more than the Africans.
And in a memorable four-way tie at USA ‘94, goals scored separated Mexico, the Republic of Ireland, Italy and Norway when they all finished with four points and the same goal difference. The Mexicans, the Irish and the Italians qualified - the World Cup was a 24-team tournament at this point, so some third-placed finishers went through - and the Norwegians were the one side that went home.
3. Points won in head-to-head clashes
4. Goal difference in head-to-head clashes
5. Goals scored in head-to-head clashes
None of these three criteria have yet been decisive at a World Cup.
In 1978, Scotland were knocked out in the group stage after losing out on overall goal difference to the Netherlands, who went on to reach the final. However, if FIFA used head-to-head points as its main World Cup tiebreaker, it’s the Scots who would have progressed. Helped by a famous solo goal by Archie Gemmill, Scotland beat the Dutch 3-2 when the sides met in the final round of Group 4 fixtures.
6. “Team conduct score”
If a points tie still can’t be decided after taking into account goal difference, goals scored and the three head-to-head criteria, FIFA turns to teams’ fair-play record. The sides are each given a “team conduct score”, which is calculated by deducting one point for every yellow card; two points for every red card resulting from two bookings; four points for every straight red card; and five points for every yellow card and straight red card. The nation with the highest score wins out.
This method has been used once at a World Cup: at Russia 2018, Japan’s fair-play score of -4 sent them into the last 16 at the expense of Senegal, who got -6.
And finally… luck of the draw
7. Drawing of lots
Should none of the first six tiebreakers work, FIFA’s final resort is to draw lots.
No team has yet been eliminated from a World Cup by this method, but it’s not completely without precedent at the tournament, either. In 1990, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland both qualified from Group F, but lots had to be drawn to decide which side came above the other, as they had identical records. The same also happened in 1970, when the Soviet Union and Mexico finished level on points and had the same goal difference (at this point in World Cup history, goals scored and head-to-head were not used as tiebreakers).