Why some World Cup games are played at the same time

For eight days, the football smorgasbord of the World Cup has unfolded at regular intervals, each game staggered to give it maximum prominence, a full 90 minutes of glamor – plus an eternity of added time – on the global stage, with no interference from other games.

While there was a lot of excitement, there was a certain order to the process: for most of those eight days, four games were scheduled three hours apart, one after the other. It was glorious, satisfying and, for those of us who crave order, quite life-affirming.

Now, starting Tuesday, the structure is on a short hiatus. Dear reader, prepare for chaos.

Beginning with Group A games at 10:00 a.m. ET, each of the eight clusters will play their final round of play simultaneously over the next four days.

Croatia will compete against it Belgium meets Morocco at the same time as Canada on Wednesday. After a break, Japan will play Spain in Group E, which is scheduled to start at 14:00 CET, right when the Costa Rica-Germany clash begins.

The schedule change creates the best conditions for competitive balance and fair play, ensuring that teams do not know the result required to reach the knockout stages before they step onto the field. It discourages teams from improving paths in the group by influencing results with tactics such as manipulating goal difference or not playing for a win. It also inhibits match-fixing.

The policy dates back to a moment so embarrassing for international football – which had one, two or nine – that it earned something of an acronym: the disgrace of Gijón. Or, in Germany, the Gijón Non-Aggression Pact (the Gijón Non-Aggression Pact).

At the 1982 World Cup in Spain, West Germany and Austria realized before their final group game that a West Germany victory by a goal or two would put both sides through – and in doing so would eliminate up-and-coming Algeria, who ended after completing a day’s group game previously, Austria needed a win or a draw to advance.

Horst Hrubesch scored for West Germany in the 11th minute. Then torpor and indolence and boredom and yawning. For the remainder of the game, George Vecsey wrote in The New York Times, “West Germany kicked more backwards than forwards.” The arrangement secured passage for both teams.

In his book on the rise of African football, Feet of the Chameleon, Ian Hawkey wrote that Algerian fans waved banknotes at the players and German television called it “the most shameful day in the history of our football association”.

Algeria complained to Fifa, but no penalty would be imposed. Instead, FIFA reacted with a rule change: from the 1986 World Cup, all finals in a group would be played at the same time. So now they are.

Enjoy the chaos. Embrace the absurdity.


Leave a Comment