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World Cup tiebreakers explained

At first glance for a casual fan, the World Cup tiebreakers for the group stages seem daunting, but the system is no more complicated than the ones used in the NHL, NFL, and other places.

Outlining FIFA's tiebreaking system

We could see lots drawn for the second time in World Cup history, and it could send Nigeria to the Round of 16 or home. (Brunskill/Getty Images)

At first glance for a casual fan, the World Cup tiebreakers for the group stages seem daunting, but the system is no more complicated than the ones used in the NHL, NFL, and other places.

When you wrap your head around it, the system isn’t too difficult to figure out. The hard part comes in figuring out all the scenarios that could occur that could send your team through, or home. For that, you’d need an abacus.

Here’s a brief explainer on FIFA’s tiebreaking system at the 2014 World Cup, to help educate, inform, and hopefully (not likely) entertain.

Tiebreaker 1

Goal difference in the group matches

  • This is a simple equation, subtracting goals for from goals against overall. Every World Cup table on the internet does this for you already (including ours!), in the “GD” column.  

Tiebreaker 2

Greatest number of goals scored in the group matches

  • If teams are tied on goal difference, then straight up goals scored are used as the second tiebreaker. FIFA instituted this tiebreaker to put the impetus on scoring. You'll see this in the (you guessed it) "GF" column on group tables. 

Tiebreaker 3

Greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned

  • FIFA would’ve saved a lot of confusion if it just said “head-to-head record” here. If three teams are involved, it uses the records of the teams against each other.

Tiebreaker 4

Goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned

  • This one only applies if there’s three teams – uses the goal difference from the matches played between them.

Tiebreaker 5

Greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned

  • Same as above, this time using goals for.

Tiebreaker 6

Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organizing Committee

  • Worst case scenario. Also known as “screw it, we’re done using math things.” Never used to send a team home, but it has been done once to separate second and third place in a group (Ireland, Netherlands, 1990, both were already progressing to the Round of 16).
  • NOTE: There is a very real possibility we could see lots drawn in Brazil. If Argentina beats Nigeria 1-0 and Iran comes up with a 1-0 victory over a demoralized Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group F on Wednesday, FIFA will have to draw lots to determine if Iran or Nigeria advance.

*Still think this is silly? Well, FIFA actually instituted a thing called “Goal Average,” which divided goals for by goals against for some insane reason. And yes, some teams have an infinity symbol for that stat in tournaments where this was used.

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