MOSCOW — FIFA can secure itself a big win by stopping teams from being tempted to lose in the name of winning. The World Cup’s current rules on losing and winning sometimes become a losing proposition all round, when the basic premise of sporting competition – to win – is twisted when reality dictates that it is more beneficial to temporarily lose.
At this point, you can’t be blamed for wondering if this column is about winning or losing, or indeed, what the heck is going on. You’re in good company, though, because the past few days have seen several World Cup teams caught up with mixed signals as to what they should really be trying to do.
To clarify a muddy situation, the final round of matches in the World Cup’s group stages saw a lot of complex permutations involving which teams would qualify for the knockout round, which position they would finish in their group and who they might end up facing once things progressed to the round of 16.
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The formula used for the competition is relatively straightforward. The top two in each of the eight groups moves on, with the group winner given the supposed advantage of playing a team that placed second in its group in the next round.
In theory, that should ensure every team wants to win its group and get what should be a weaker opponent as the journey continues. The problem is, upsets happen, games in different groups are played at different times and it soon it becomes clear to certain squads that there could be greater benefit from finishing as runner-up in its group.
That is when strange things start to happen. Things like Belgium and England each fielding drastically weakened lineups in their final Group G face-off, with both squads having already clinched advancement by winning their first two. The reward for winning the group, ultimately clinched by Belgium after a tepid 1-0 win, is a potential quarterfinal against Brazil. England, if it negotiates past Colombia in the round of 16, would then have a dream quarterfinal against the winner of Sweden and Switzerland, and realistically saw its chances of making the final increase thanks to its defeat.
Two days earlier, there was no hint of sadness on the faces of Russia’s players after they lost 3-0 to Uruguay in their third match. Victory would have brought bragging rights associated with winning Group A and perhaps the intangible of a psychological boost. But in practical terms, the Russians will now play their second-round match at their favored venue, Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, where most of their international games are staged, instead of trekking down to Sochi and also having one fewer day’s rest.
Japan head coach Akira Nishino rested six players for his team’s third game, figuring that the other result in the group would likely ensure his squad qualified anyway. But the real reason was that in Japan’s position there was no extra advantage for winning the group as it was guaranteed to face a tough second-round opponent regardless – England or Belgium. So why not rest up beforehand?
This is where the problem lies. The group stage has become a process of survival and sometimes tactical positioning. There needs to be a clearer and more defined reward for those who win the group as opposed to teams who merely sneak in.
One way to achieve this under the current system of 32 teams would be to scrap the round of 16 altogether and have each group winner go to the quarterfinal and have the rest head home. That’s unlikely to fly, and in any case, the round of 16 provides a lot of fun.
An alternative would be to redraw the pairings after the group stage, putting the winners in one pot and the runners-up in another, which would stamp out teams trying to position themselves into second place. In a larger host country, such as Russia or the United States, this could pose significant hurdles for traveling fans, who would have no hint of where they would be playing until a couple of days before it actually happened.
A better option may actually present itself when FIFA adopts the controversial plan to expand the World Cup to 48 teams. As things stand, this idea is based on 16 three-team groups, which is ugly and messy and fraught with complications and possibilities for collusion.
Yet if 48 broke down into 12 groups of four, the thing could work better. The top two in each group would qualify, making 24, but the eight group winners with the best record would get a second-round bye, while the remainder battled it out for the final spots in the round of 16.
That would guarantee that not only do teams have every incentive to win the group but would be trying to do so with the greatest numbers of points possible.
Ultimately, this probably makes too much sense for FIFA to adopt, but it is a fact that the worst thing about this outstanding World Cup was the rather dismal conclusion to the group stage.
Thankfully, it is now on to the knockout bracket, where everyone wants to win, no one wants to lose, and no one even thinks about the potential for winning by losing.