There’s been only one major upset during the 2019 Women’s World Cup, but it was enough to throw the tournament’s Group C into chaos.
Heading into the final matches of group play, every team in Group C is still alive for the knockout round. Three of the four teams can still win the group. And the multitude of scenarios could send fans digging through their rulebooks for the tiebreakers beyond goal differential.
Group C had a clear pecking order at the tournament’s start. Australia, the No. 6 team in the world, was supposed to battle Brazil for group supremacy; Italy, the thinking went, would have to hold off underdog Jamaica for third. It all seemed straightforward and not particularly interesting. Then Australia fell to Italy on Barbara Bonansea’s 95th-minute winner in the opener, the only time this tournament that a team FiveThirtyEight pegged as having a greater than 50 percent chance to win its match ended up losing.
The current standings don’t clarify much. Italy sits first on the back of that win and a 5–0 drubbing of Jamaica. Australia, which beat Brazil 3–2 in its second game, still sits behind Brazil in the standings on goal differential. Jamaica is winless, but still technically alive.
An imaginative fan can have plenty of fun working through the scenarios before the group’s final matches kick off at 3 p.m. ET on Tuesday. If Brazil beats Italy by two goals and Australia also hangs five on Jamaica, Australia wins the group. If Italy beats or even draws Brazil, Brazil likely ends up in third, assuming Jamaica doesn’t upset Australia. (If Italy and Jamaica do both win, then Group C will finish with one team at 9 points and three teams on 3 apiece, and goal differential calculations and other tiebreakers will be used to separate second, third, and fourth instead.)
Barring an Australia collapse, the third-place team from this group is probably going to advance. You might think that an assured place in the next round would inspire some of these teams to play out the kind of polite if insipid draw that China and Spain did on Monday, knowing that would be good enough to get them both through. But the difference between first, second, and third in Group C might be the difference between playing Nigeria, Norway, and France in the Round of 16. That’s quite the span of potential knockout-stage fortunes.
And it gets even more complicated. The runner-up of Group C will definitely play Norway on June 22, but both the winner and the third-place team’s matchups are subject to results in other groups. FIFA’s chosen 24-team format advances four of the tournament’s six third-place teams. Those teams aren’t seeded; the worst team to advance doesn’t automatically get the best group winner. Instead, the matchups are preordained based on which four third-place teams make it out of the group. The set of possible pairings looks like someone who’s not very good has been playing the board game Mastermind. Suffice it to say that the first-place team will receive a significantly more favorable matchup than the third-place team, though exactly whom it will play won’t be known until the final whistle is blown on Thailand-Chile on Thursday.
To someone used to the symmetrical perfection of the NCAA basketball bracket, this format can seem like a frustrating and inefficient way to conduct a major sporting event. Thirty-two games will have been played by the end of the group stage, but that process will only eliminate eight teams. There are pros to this: Argentina still controls its own destiny, and on one level, it’d be worth rewriting whatever rules it took to get that squad into the knockout stage. But it also saps the event of much of its drama. There’s no sting of a good team’s shock exit because none of the good teams are going to exit. Brazil playing to avoid a potential Round of 16 date with France isn’t the same as Brazil playing to avoid getting sent home, even if it would rather avoid both scenarios.
At the moment, a 24-team tournament is a necessary evil. Reducing the World Cup back to 16 puts the tough cuts too early; Argentina wouldn’t have even made it then, and that’s not the right message to send to the up-and-comers proving they can hang with the old guard for the first time. But going the other way and adding eight equivalents of South Korea and New Zealand would dilute the group stage even further. There are countries that didn’t make the field that would have enhanced it—Pernille Harder’s Denmark is the most obvious candidate, though FIFA’s highest-ranked team not to qualify was actually North Korea—but probably not enough to get to 32, at least until more of the world’s federations start taking their women’s programs seriously. When that happens, maybe we’ll get more final-day drama like we’re seeing this year in Group C.
This post was updated to add the start time of Tuesday’s matches.