28 June 2018

A fixity of fixtures

World Cup Permutation Week, concluding today, brings to mind the infamous West Germany-Austria game that finished Group 2 of the 1982 World Cup. This was the one in which the teams knew that were Germany to win 1-0, both sides would qualify for the second round ahead of Algeria. And wouldn't you know, Germany scored early and both teams lazed conspiratorially in the Basque sun for seventy-nine long, crooked minutes.

Eager to know what such a deformity actually looks like, I tried in vain to find a video of the full game. However, I did find this brief video, which hints that there was more action after the goal than is usually recalled. The Guardian's Rob Smyth, meanwhile, has seen the match in full, and has written a fascinating piece on it. Per Smyth:

"The video of the game is thus a surprise. You expect side-to-side stuff, players standing around picking spots and scratching backsides, not giving 10% never mind 110; the greatest sham on turf. That only really happens in the final quarter of an hour, when the game properly livens down, and even then it is no more brazen than subsequent examples of two teams settling for a specific score."

Which makes it sound a lot like Ireland-Holland in the final round of games in the draw-laden Group F of the 1990 World Cup. With the score at 1-1, and England winning 1-0 against Egypt, the live table looked like this (F-A Pts; two points for a win in those days):

ENG 2-1 4
IRL 2-2 3
NED 2-2 3
EGY 1-2 2

The Irish and Dutch players knew that were the scores to remain the same, Ireland and Holland would finish in joint second place in the group: level on points, goal difference, goals scored and head-to-head results. (Fair-play records — the tie-breaker that has done for Senegal in this year's edition — did not come into it.) This would mean that they would have to be separated by lots. Both teams would qualify for the last 16, because whichever of the teams fell to third place would guaranteed a place as one of the best third-place teams. (This being the last group to conclude, the teams thus had an advantage over the third-place teams from other groups. Ireland enjoyed the same advantage at Euro 2016.)

Ireland and Holland bet on Egypt not scoring, and gently played out the remainder of the game. The bet paid off, and the lottery went ahead. Ireland 'won' it, claiming second place and a second-round tie with Romania, which went pretty fucking splendidly. The Netherlands had to play West Germany, which didn't.

But suppose Egypt had equalised against England. That would have meant all four teams would have had the exact same record. The final standings for the entire group would have decided by a four-team lottery. It would have been the greatest moment in World Cup history.

Another scenario. Let's say one of Ireland or Holland somehow accidentally scored a second and unfortunately clumsily won 2-1. For the purposes of this thought experiment, we'll call that team Ireland. (You'll have to imagine Ireland scoring more than one goal in a tournament game, but you can do it if you just believe.) That would have put Ireland top, ahead of England on goals scored. Holland would still have finished in third, ahead of Egypt by the same means. But they would not have automatically qualified for the second round. Their record of F2 A3 Pts2 would have given them the joint fourth-best record amongst the third-place teams, level with Austria and Scotland. With the four best third-place teams qualifying, Holland, Scotland and Austria would have been the lucky lottery contestants, only one of which would have gone through.

As it happens, in the 1994 World Cup, Ireland again finished their group with the joint second-best record; this time, the other team was Italy. Ireland, you may recall, had beaten Italy, so finished in second place without need of Sepp Blatter's balls/bowl carry-on. All four teams in that group had four points and a goal difference of zero. Mexico won the group on goals scored; Norway ended up in fourth, hitching a lift home on a long ball from one of their centre-halves. (Ireland would never do such a thing.)


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