Sports

Senegal Got Eliminated by FIFA’s Dumb “Fair Play” Tiebreaker. Here Are Some Better Tiebreakers.

A sad Senegal fan.
A Senegal fan reacts at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup Group H football match between Senegal and Colombia at the Samara Arena in Samara on June 28, 2018. EMMANUEL DUNAND/Getty Images

Good night, sweet Senegal. You were too pure for this world.

Except you weren’t. Not according to FIFA. Senegal and Japan both finished round-robin play in Group H having won one match, drawn one, and lost one. They both scored four goals and allowed four goals, and even their individual score lines were identical: 2–1, 2–2, 0–1. Yet Japan has advanced to the Round of 16 and Senegal is going home thanks to the sixth tiebreaker on FIFA’s list: fair play.

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Senegal picked up two more yellow cards than Japan in group play, docking the team two more points in FIFA’s fair play system. This was a predictable result, given that Senegal plays a more physical game than Japan, relying on aggressive midfielders and a physical target forward, M’Baye Niang, whose job is to win battles with defenders for long balls and generally harass them into making mistakes. Niang picked up two of Senegal’s six cautions and deserved both of them. Without those, Japan and Senegal would have moved onto the final tiebreaker, the drawing of lots.

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These are hardly satisfactory as methods of determining which team is better or more deserving to advance in the World Cup. Fair play was fun when we were using it to envision a Belgium-England Thunderdome in their final group game, but now that it’s eliminated fan-favorite Senegal, discontent with the rule is spreading. Yellow cards are bad, but when you use them to determine a competitive result, the punishment no longer fits the crime. Among the tournament leaders in cautions are South Korea, Morocco, and Croatia, not exactly teams out there playing bully ball.

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Fair play is already plenty incentivized. If a player picks up two yellows in a game he’s sent off and misses the next match, same as getting a straight red. But in the World Cup, as in many tournaments, a player can also be forced to miss the next match for accumulating two yellow cards across different matches. If Senegal had advanced, Niang would have missed the Round of 16 for committing two fouls in two different games. Those cards carry over from the group stage into the knockout rounds, with the slate getting wiped clean only in the semifinals.

Given that the prospect of losing key players for elimination games ought to be plenty discouraging, it doesn’t seem logical to disincentivize yellow and red cards even further. So what should FIFA use instead?

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Corner kicks earned: An imprecise but not wholly inaccurate method of gauging attacking intent, with the added bonus of turning the ends of tight group matches into dodgeball games as attackers aim to carom the ball off defenders’ shins and beyond the end line.

Video game replays: The fairest way to determine who deserves to advance after two teams tie on all the goal metrics is to have them play again. Unfortunately, replays and playoffs have gone out of style as the world has realized that giving players rest results in better games. But what if there were a way to do it so that no one needed to be iced down at the end? The caveats: The teams have to play as themselves, and each member of the team can only control his virtual self. Maybe Sadio Mané’s game is Fortnite, and it makes sense to leave him on your virtual bench and let 19-year-old right back Moussa Wagué run Senegal’s attack.

Style points: The soccer powers that be are always trying to incentivize open, attacking soccer, and what better way to determine who plays a more attractive style than bringing in a panel of impartial judges who will definitely in no way whatsoever be subject to any kind of corruption or outside influence, not in an organization like FIFA.

Dance-offs: There’s no way Senegal’s going home now.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the 2018 World Cup.

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