The Final match of Group 2 of the 1982 FIFA World Cup saw West Germany take on Austria in the city of Gijón, Spain.
Because of a quirk in the World Cup point system, the result of the game meant that…
1-0 or 2-0 to West Germany: Both West Germany and Austria advance to the next stage.
Draw, or Austria win: Austria and another team in their group – Algeria – advance, while West Germany are eliminated.
West Germany win by 3 or more goals: West Germany and Algeria advance. Austria are eliminated.
You can see where I’m headed, right?
After West Germany (to the surprise of precisely no-one) took the lead inside 10 minutes, the final 80 minutes was played without any serious shots on goal. Both teams were content to play 80 minutes of World Cup football without actually trying very hard, in order to guarantee their place in the next round.
The poor Algerians, meanwhile, watched two nations (who just happened to be European neighbours with largely shared history, culture, and language) play a friendly game of kick-to-kick for 80 minutes.
The crowd openly jeered as players casually jogged on the pitch, barely bothering to even pretend that they were giving 100%.
It is called the Disgrace of Gijón, and it actually led to a rule change from FIFA so that final group games are played simultaneously to reduce the chances of such collusion and gamesmanship happening again.
Meanwhile, in 2017, FIFA have approved a new format for the World Cup from 2026, one that will almost undoubtedly lead to gamesmanship and collusion again!
The new format will include 48 teams, split into 16 Groups of 3 Nations.
Each team will play each other once, with the Top 2 advancing to a huge knockout 32-team bracket.
More nations involved, a more global spectacle, higher TV ratings, more money for FIFA. It’s not hard to see why they loved the idea.
To ensure clear Group winners and losers, it seems there will be “No Draws Allowed” with every match going to Extra-Time and Penalties(!) if needed to decide a winner…
This is ostensibly to prevent two teams playing a Gijón-like final match, aiming for a draw so they both advance at the expense of the third team.
But either way, this new format opens the tournament to serious collusion and gamesmanship.
You might argue there are already scenarios where teams collude or quietly rest their best players to try and jostle into the bracket position they want… but reducing Groups from 4 teams to 3 will amplify this. In a Group of 4 teams, the Final matches are usually played with three (if not all four) teams still jostling for qualification. That means teams are unlikely to be too clever or try to win by a particular margin. They just try to win.
With only 3 teams per group, that safety net is gone. Teams are more likely to know where they stand for the knockout stages prior to the final group match, and they’ll play that match more strategically.
Perhaps, too strategically.
2026 World Cup. Croatia, Japan, and Nigeria are grouped together.
Croatia def Nigeria 1-0
Nigeria def Japan 1-0
Japan def Croatia 1-0
All three teams finish equal on wins, losses, goals scored, and goal difference. What happens next? Who advances and who misses out? What a headache!
But what if the margins were different?
Then there are some intriguing possibilities… For instance, let’s say…
Croatia def Nigeria 2-0
Nigeria def Japan 2-1
It’s messy, but in that scenario Japan HAVE to go for a 2-0 win at least in the final match.
Croatia, meanwhile, simply have to avoid a 3-goal loss at all costs to secure their passage.
And imagine if Japan got to 2-0, Croatia would absolutely park the bus to avoid a 3rd goal.
Japan would have no reason to attack and risk conceding a goal that would see them eliminated.
Croatia would have no reason to attack either, and risk conceding a third, either.
Both teams would sit back and it would be Gijón all over again.
But what if there is incentive for teams to finish Top of the Group instead of just being happy with 2nd?
The most obvious way to do this is to say that 1st-placed teams will only play 2nd-placed teams in the first knockout round.
But again, this actually opens up the tournament to even more collusion and jostling for positions.
Teams may play 75 minutes of their Final Group Match happy to lose 1-0 and still qualify in 2nd place, before the results of another Group’s final match filter through and all of a sudden they’ll have to play Germany if they lose and Qatar if they win. This would lead to a shambolic final 15 minutes of relentless attack, with strategies being dictated by the ongoing scoreline of another Group’s match.
While it might be entertaining for impartial fans and would cause Twitter to melt, it would be farcical and totally unbecoming of the World Cup.
I have no problem with the idea of an expanded World Cup. I’m not a fan of the reasons FIFA are doing it (greed, mainly), but the game is played at a higher level in more countries than ever before, and giving more countries the chance to prove themselves is a good thing.
I also don’t buy the bleatings from former-players about the tournament losing prestige or importance simply because more nations play on the Main Stage.
But the days of gentlemanly and friendly competition are long gone. Teams will be carefully watching the new format to squeeze every last drop of advantage from the Group Stages, especially if there is an ‘easybeat’ in their tiny group of three.
No team will want to finish top of their Group if it means playing a knockout stage match against a Superpower that surprisingly finished second in their group.
Every team will want to finish 2nd in their Group if it means their next match is against a mediocre team stumbles into 1st place in their Group.
And the Greatest Sporting Event on Earth will have matches descend into Gijón-like farce.
FIFA need to find a safety net, some kind of strategy to stop this happening before 2026.