There is little margin for error in the group stage of the World Cup.
Only half of the 32-team field will advance to the knockout stage in Qatar. With just three group-play games, all matches carry added importance beyond a win, loss and draw. Every goal, save and card could play a factor in deciding which nations reach the round of 16.
Three of the eight groups at the 2018 World Cup in Russia had ties in the standings that needed to go through the tiebreaker process. Two of those situations were between teams at the top of their group, while another situation sent a team packing in historic fashion.
What happens when two teams in the same group are level on points after three matches? Let’s break down FIFA’s World Cup tiebreaker scenarios:
What is the first tiebreaker during the FIFA World Cup?
If two teams in the same group have the same number of points through three games, the first tiebreaker criteria is goal differential. The team with the higher goal differential gets the higher spot in the standings.
Goal differential was needed to break a tie at the 2018 World Cup between Sweden and Mexico, the top two teams in Group F. Both sides had six points, but Sweden was named the group winner due to its plus-three goal differential compared to Mexico’s minus-one.
What is the second tiebreaker during the FIFA World Cup?
If two teams share the same number of points and goal differential, the next criteria to determine the ranking is the number of goals scored in all group matches. The higher-scoring team gets the advantage over the lower-scoring one.
This tiebreaker came into play between Spain and Portugal at the 2018 World Cup. They were level at the top of the Group B table after obtaining five points and a plus-one goal differential. Spain was named the group winner since it notched six goals during its three games, while Portugal advanced as the runner-up after scoring five goals.
Full list of tiebreakers at the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar
Here is FIFA’s step-by-step process for ranking teams in a group:
- Greatest number of points obtained in all group matches
- Superior goal difference in all group matches
- Greatest number of goals scored in all group matches
If two or more teams are equal on all three aspects of Step 1, FIFA moves onto Step 2:
- Greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned (could be between two, three or even four teams)
- Superior goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned
- Greatest number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned
- Highest team conduct score relating to the number of yellow and red cards obtained:
- Yellow card: minus-1 point
- Indirect red card (as a result of two yellow cards): minus-3 points
- Direct red card: minus-4 points
- Yellow card and direct red card: minus-5 points
- Drawing of lots by FIFA
FIFA went all the way down to No. 7 to settle a tie in the group-play standings at the 2018 World Cup. Japan and Senegal had the same points (4), goal differential (0) and goals scored (4). They also played a 2-2 draw in their head-to-head match.
To determine which team would join Colombia, the Group H winner, in the knockout stage, FIFA used the seventh step, known as the “fair play” rule. Senegal, which obtained two more yellow cards during group play than Japan, became the first team ever eliminated from the World Cup due to the fair play tiebreaker.
What happens if three teams are tied in a World Cup group?
While all of the examples from the 2018 tournament featured two teams tied in a group, FIFA uses the same criteria if three or four teams are involved.
FIFA works down the list of criteria to determine spots in the table. If one team is given a higher or lower seed based on a given step but not every team’s seed can be determined based on that step, the remaining teams will continue down the list of tiebreaker criteria until the standings are properly sorted.