England and Belgium are both guaranteed places in the World Cup’s Round of 16, but good manners could decide who they’ll play in the knockout stage. The countries have been so evenly matched after their first two games that FIFA may have to count yellow and red cards to determine the winner of Group G.
The two countries play each other on Thursday, but should that match end in a draw, both teams will finish the group stage with seven points and the same amount of goals scored and conceded. Because the first tie-breaker is goal difference and the second is number of goals scored, group placement—and thus their opponents in the knockout stage—would be decided by FIFA fair play points.
FIFA’s fair play points system works like this:
Yellow cards = -1,
Indirect red card (as a result of a second yellow card) = -3
Direct red card = -4
Yellow card and direct red = -5, with only one of the deductions applied to a player in a single game.
If the two teams finish the match even in fair play points, then lots will be drawn to decide the group winner.
Spain and Portugal could face a similar scenario, but those countries don’t face each other directly in their last match and have less control over this peculiar situation.
England has been issued two yellow cards so far, while Belgium has received three. Neither team has been red-carded, and so England currently leads the group by one fair play point. But there might be a situation where coming in second-place could be advantageous. The winner of Group G faces the the Group H runner-up (either Japan, Senegal, Colombia, or Poland) and vice versa, and it’s entirely possible that a seemingly weaker team could sneak into first place in Group H.
Were that the case, and if its match against Belgium is tied in the closing minutes, then it could theoretically behoove England for two of its players to pick up yellow cards and tank their country’s fair play ranking. A deliberate handball outside the box or some egregious time-wasting would do the trick, as would a genial “piss off” to the referee (though that could land them in red card territory if they come across a particularly sensitive official).
This would be a genius plan save for the fact that it is extremely stupid. A player who gets yellow-carded in two separate matches receives a one-game suspension, meaning there is no good time to get penalized, even if it’s for the purposes of tanking. (The card count carries through the group stages and knockout round but is reset for the semi-finals.)
Stupid or not, it wouldn’t be the first group-stage shenanigans seen in the World Cup. Algeria missed out on the knockout round in 1982 after West Germany and Austria played a suspiciously uncompetitive match. Dubbed the “Disgrace of Gijón,” the game conveniently ended with a scoreline (1–0 to West Germany) that sent both European countries through at the expense of Algeria.
Given that England and Belgium are both already assured a spot in the next round, a fair play tanking gambit wouldn’t exactly be a “disgrace.” Sure, it would be poor sportsmanship, but the scenario is funny enough to root for nonetheless.