Monday, June 25, 2018


Match Day 12 begins the final set of first-round games. There will be four a day, but two at a time. 

  • A primer on what's at stake, and how it will be decided
  • There was collusion! That's why FIFA does it this way
  • Felipe Baloy scored Panama's first World Cup goal, ever
  • Mohamed Salah, feeling used, wants to quit Egypt
  • A coup d'etat against Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli

Who's in, who's out and why

The third and final set of group games begin today, with six teams guaranteed spots in the round of 16  the single-elimination part of the World Cup. The other 10 are still being contested, and the order of finish is yet to be determined.

Who advances?

The top two teams in each of the eight groups advance. Teams earn 3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, and the teams with the most points advance. Russia, Uruguay, France, Croatia, England and Belgium are already through. It's simple, except when it isn't.

Tie breakers
The teams play three closely contested games, so even if most of those games are decisive only five of 32 have ended in a tie  there's still a good chance teams can be even in the standings.

The first tie-breaker is goal difference, or the number of goals a team scored in the group stage, less those allowed. If it's still tied, the team that scored the most goals overall wins. It goes on from there with a series of tie-breakers that include:

  • How tied teams fared against each other;
  • The goal difference in head-to-head matches;
  • The number of goals the tied teams scored against each other;
  • And something called fair-play points, based on yellow and red cards.

If it's still tied after all of that, FIFA will draw lots.

Wait, the drawing of lots, really?
Yup. It's happened before. At the end of qualifying for the 1954 World Cup, a blindfolded 14-year-old Italian boy settled a tie between Turkey and Spain. Luigi Franco Gemma plucked a plastic ball from a jug giving Turkey a spot in the tournament.

It happened again at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where Ireland and the Netherlands were completely tied in Group F. They drew all three games by the exact same score, giving them 3 points, 2 goals for and 2 goals against.

Nobody was sent home. The ritual was to determine which team finished second and third in the group, even though both teams would advance. (England finished first in the group.)

Sepp Blatter, who was FIFA general secretary at the time, conducted the drawing by writing the teams' names on slips of paper put inside two plastic balls placed in a glass bowl.  Two other balls with slips with the numbers 2 and 3 written on them were placed in another bowl. Blatter had FIFA hostesses pick the balls. Watch.

Why the order of finish matters
The tournament has expanded since 1990, and as the number of groups has grown fewer teams from each group advance. The order still matters because first place in one group plays second place in another. So even if it is clear which two teams go through, there could be the chance lots will be drawn to see which team finishes first.  

In 1990, Ireland came in second by luck of the draw and wound up beating Romania in a penalty-kick shootout. The Netherlands lost to the eventual champion, Germany.

This year, the most likely group to be decided by the drawing of lots appears to be Group B, if Spain and Portugal finish with identical records. Iran can also get through in that group. 


Why do they play two games at the same time?

The Disgrace of Gijón, that's why. In fact, today is the 36th anniversary of what The Guardian called "proper World Cup villainy."  

In the final group game between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup in Italy, the two teams played a more-than-suspicious 1-0 game — just the result the Germans needed to get through while also letting the Austrians advance at Algeria's expense.

There was one shot on goal, which West Germany's Hrost Hrubech bumbled past the Austrian goalkeeper Friedl Koncilia. The two teams then settled in for a pointless game of kick about best described by the Simpsons' Kent Brockman.

Algeria was rightly outraged and lodged a protest, which FIFA said it investigated. But the result stood. West Germany went on to the final, and it was Hrubech's only World Cup goal. 

After that, FIFA decided that the final game for every team in the same group would be played at the same time, so that teams couldn't collude with each other to engineer beneficial results. 

It makes more more exciting games, though there are still situations where teams know that both teams will go through, so they don't have as much to play for. Sometimes, coaches will rest stars or try out new lineups ahead of the knockout rounds. There are also times coaches prefer coming in second in the group to avoid a dreaded opponent from a corresponding group in the round of 16.

One of the most entertaining soccer matches I've ever seen was the third Group A game in 2010 between Uruguay and Mexico. Both teams were through, and they wanted to avoid playing Argentina in the round of 16, so they went all out.  Uruguay won 1-0 on a Luis Suarez goal. 

Run of Play | Great Reads and More

1. ‘It's a goal that will remain in the history of Panamanian football.’
Felipe Baloy scored Panama’s first World Cup goal, ever, and became the oldest player to score in his World Cup debut.

Really, it’s the Panama mark that means the most. It’s not like 37-year-olds poured out into the streets for spontaneous celebrations and riotous dance parties. But Panamanians sure did.

Baloy, a 69th-minute substitute, slid into the England penalty area to connect with a well-placed Ricardo Avila free kick. Watch and listen. And check out the celebrations back home in Panama. I wish I was back at Michelle’s Cocktail Lounge for this one.

Everyone wanted in on the excitement of Baloy’s accomplishment. The Guatemalan media noted that he was the first player from that country’s top league to score in a World Cup. The Mexican news media mentioned that Baloy had spent several years playing in Liga MX, for three different teams.  La Prensa, the Panamanian newspaper, rounded up coverage online.

Also, England scored 6 goals, half of them by Harry Kane.

Watch the highlights.

2. Mohamed Salah considers quitting Egypt.
The Pharaohs’ star and one of the most beloved players at the World Cup is reportedly angry that he’s being used as a political symbol and the Egyptian soccer federation hasn’t protected him.

Salah, perhaps the most recognizable Muslim athlete in the world, was especially upset that he was being used by the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who granted Salah honorary Chechen citizenship at a banquet for the team on Saturday. On the eve of the tournament, Kadyrov had Salah dragged out of bed from his hotel for a photo op.

The Egyptian soccer federation told CNN on Sunday it hadn’t been informed of Salah’s plans to quit the national team.

Read more from The New York Times about how politics has infiltrated the World Cup.

3. Coup d’etat against Argentina coach.
It’s a standoff between coach Jorge Sampaoli and the veteran players who are fed up with his strategy, tactics and personnel choices, according to reports in Argentine and Spanish news media. Several players behind Lionel Messi, if not led by him, want to choose the lineup for the Group D finale against Nigeria. The generation of players who came up together feel they can save Argentina’s World Cup if allowed to do it their way.

It’s all a bit of a mess on top of a mess, but it seems that Sampaoli, even without his players’ confidence, will continue as coach. Javier Mascherano, a team veteran and confidante of Messi’s, said everything’s fine, if you can believe that.

"The relationship with the coach is totally normal," Mascherano said, according to ESPN. "Obviously, when we feel some discomfort or we see something, we express it to him because otherwise, we would be hypocrites. If you are uncomfortable with something on the pitch and don't express it to the coach, are you going to play an uncomfortable game? You would be harming the team."

Read more from Mascherano’s comments.

4. Iranians celebrate their country, not its government.
One reason I’m so fascinated with Iran at the World Cup is the team’s ability to give voice to millions of Iranians who would not otherwise be heard. People exiled from their home after the Islamic Revolution have an opportunity to show their pride and celebrate their compatriots, not the government. "I hope it shows to the world that we are normal human beings, like everyone else, not monsters," said Manny Khorasani, who lives in Scotland. He was in Saransk, Russia, for the match Tuesday against Portugal.

Read more from Iranian fans at the World Cup.

5. Carles Puyol banned from Iranian TV for his haircut.
Apparently, the former Spanish defender and World Cup winner was scheduled to help Iranian TV cover Team Melli’s game against Spain last week. But when he got to the studio, they reportedly would not let him on air because of his long hair.

According to the BBC, the Iranian soccer federation’s code of conduct says that its players shouldn’t wear hairstyles that “spread foreign culture,” and players are sometimes warned to change hairstyles that the authorities don’t like. “Iran has no official hairstyle policy,” the BBC reported. “But state TV is strictly against broadcasting anything considered unconventional or ‘un-Islamic’ by the clergy and the conservative establishment.”

Read more from the BBC.


Catch up with The Banter.

Read previous issues of the newsletter, with stories about how important (or irrelevant) coaches are at the World Cup; the Panini sticker collection; World Cup fathers and sons; why people root for Iceland; and how the World Cup can make us all better soccer fans.

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The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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