Qualification status: It’s complicated

I’VE never understood why anyone would select ‘It’s complicated’ as their Facebook relationship status. For one thing, it can’t make pleasant reading for the person who thought (or perhaps didn’t think) they were in a relationship with you. For another, if you’re not sure whether you’re in a relationship, then surely you’re not in a relationship.

“Ah,” I hear you say. “But life’s more complicated than that. Some things in life are difficult to define in terms of absolutes, and are more a matter of perception. You know, things such as intelligence, beauty, humour and the British Olympic taekwondo selection process.”

But I don’t understand how relationship status fits into that category, I reply.

“Well, it’s simple,” you respond. “You perceive that you’re having a conversation with me now about the difference between perception and reality. Whereas actually, I’m just a figment of your imagination.”

No, that’s wrong, I reply. I’m fully aware that you’re a figment of my imagination. I’ve created you in order to make a point about perception in an amusing way.

“It’s only amusing in your imagination.”

Oh dear. I think I might just have invented online ventriloquism.

“I wondered what you were doing with your hand.”

Hang on. This IS complicated. Almost as complicated as the methods UEFA and FIFA use to decide European Championship and World Cup group tables.

“Whoa there, buddy. Nothing’s as complicated as that.”

No, you’re right actually. The most complicated Facebook relationship status in the world has nothing on Group B at Euro 2012, which is so complex that it might actually be capable of bending space and time.

I know, because I spent much of Friday afternoon trying to work out the qualification permutations. It took several sheets of scribbled sums and a phone call to UEFA’s press office before I even got close.

At this point, I should explain that I was doing this for work rather than pleasure. Over the summer, I’m doing odd bits and bobs for the BBC Sport website, which is based at Salford Quays. (I haven’t told them about the Gubbometer.) On Friday, a colleague of mine was asked to put together a piece outlining the possible permutations for each Euro 2012 group, and I was assigned to help him check it.

In the old days, this would have been fairly straightforward. If two or more teams were level on points, they would be separated by goal difference, then goals scored. But things have changed.

A few years ago, UEFA and FIFA decided to start separating level teams by their head-to-head record. The intention behind this was to stop qualifying groups for major tournaments being decided by who put the most goals past San Marino. And on that level, it made sense. At the 1974 World Cup, for instance, Scotland were effectively eliminated because they didn’t beat Zaire by as wide a margin as Brazil and Yugoslavia did. Surely a team should be rewarded at least partly by how they do against their main rivals?

So now, teams level on points are separated first by head-to-head record, then by goal difference, the by goals scored. Then it gets really complicated.

Swapping one set of rules for another might have eliminated the San Marino factor, but it also seems to have increased the likelihood of the mutually-beneficial result.

Much has been written over the last couple of days about Group C, where a 2-2 draw between Spain and Croatia will take both teams through at Italy’s expense. But there’s a similar scenario in Group B. If Denmark beat Germany 3-2, that result will take those two sides through and render Portugal’s result against Holland irrelevant. In the old days, where goal difference was king, this situation would have been less likely to arise.

Sure, something similar happened at the 1982 World Cup finals, when West Germany knew that a 1-0 win over Austria would see both sides qualify from their group. The Germans went a goal up after 10 minutes and both sides effectively stopped playing. But that was at a time before the final games of a group stage were played simultaneously. Once FIFA sorted that out for subsequent tournaments, goal difference did the rest.

Not now. Spain and Croatia will definitely go through with a 2-2 draw, whatever Italy do against the Republic of Ireland tomorrow night, because of the head-to-head system. Say Italy win 5-0. The final table would look like this:

———— P    W    D    L    F    A    Pts
Spain    3     1     2    0    7    3     5
Croatia 3     1     2    0    6    4      5
Italy      3     1     2    0    7    2     5
Ireland  3    0     0    3    1   12    0

Under UEFA tournament rules, the positions of Spain, Croatia and Italy would be decided by a three-way head-to-head table. Italy drew 1-1 with Spain and Croatia, so it would look like this:

———— P     W     D    L    F    A    Pts
Spain    2      0     2     0    3    3     2
Croatia 2      0     2     0    3    3     2
Italy     2      0     2     0    2    2     2

Italy would finish third in that head-to-head mini league on goals scored, and so would go out. Because Spain and Croatia would finish with identical records, they would then be separated by goal difference across the whole group. Spain’s would be better, so they would finish top.

Brilliantly, it has the potential to get even more complicated. If Spain and Croatia draw 1-1, and Italy beat the Republic of Ireland 3-1, then the final table would look like this:

———— P    W    D    L    F    A    Pts
Spain   3     1     2    0    6    2     5
Italy     3     1     2    0    5    3     5
Croatia 3     1     2    0    5    3     5
Ireland  3    0     0    3    2   10   0

Again, a three-way head-to-head would come into play, but this time, it wouldn’t be decisive:

————- P    W    D    L    F    A    Pts
Spain      2    0     2    0    2    2     2
Italy        2    0     2    0    2    2     2
Croatia    2    0     2    0    2    2     2

And so again it would come down to goal difference. Spain would again finish top, but Italy and Croatia would be absolutely level. UEFA’s solution in those circumstances would be to use the head-to-head record between Italy and Croatia to separate them. But as they drew 1-1, that would be no use either.

So instead, it would come down to UEFA co-efficient rankings, a points system not a zillion miles away from the one used to determine player seedings in tennis. According to UEFA’s website, the qualification contenders in Group C have the following co-efficients:

Spain 43.116
Italy 34.357
Croatia 33.003

Italy would go through, then, because their UEFA co-efficient is higher than Croatia’s. You may be interested to know, by the way, that Group D qualification will also be decided on the co-efficient system if England lose 0-1 to Ukraine and France lose 1-3 to Sweden. In those circumstances, England’s superior co-efficient (33.563) would see them go in second place, at the expense of France (a frankly pathetic 30.508).

Incidentally, there is scope for group qualification to be decided on a penalty shoot-out before the co-efficient rule is invoked – but only if two teams finish level on everything else, having played each other in their final group-stage game. A shoot-out would have been used to separate Turkey and the Czech Republic at Euro 2008 in this manner – but then Turkey scored in the final minute to win 3-2, so it wasn’t needed.

If it all sounds a bit complex, it’s probably fairer than the method used at Italia 90 to separate Holland and the Republic of Ireland, who finished level in Group F on points, goal difference, goals scored and head-to-head records. FIFA resorted to drawing lots. It meant Ireland finished second, and faced Romania in the last 16. Holland finished third and still went through – but had a rather game against West Germany. If that happened now, the penalty shoot-out option would be used, as Holland and Ireland drew 1-1 against each other in their final group game.

These days, lots are still an option as an absolute last resort, but only after the shoot-out, the co-efficients and the fair play rankings have been exhausted. (Did I not mention the fair play rankings? Ah, some other time perhaps.) No one seems to know what happens if two teams are still level after the drawing of lots. Perhaps the world ends. Or even worse, Simon Cowell has the casting vote.

My favourite method of all time for deciding a group, through, was the one used in the 1990/91 Leyland Daf Cup. In a three-team round-robin pool, Torquay, Swansea and Shrewsbury all drew 1-1 with each other – and had to replay the entire group.

Those UEFA Euro 2012 regulations in full:

Paragraph 8.07: If two or more teams are equal on points on completion of the group matches, the following criteria are applied to determine the rankings:

a) Higher number of points obtained in the matches played between the teams in question;

b) Superior goal difference resulting from the matches played between the teams in question;

c) Higher number of goals scored in the matches played between the teams in question;

d) If, after having applied criteria a) to c), two teams still have an equal ranking, criteria a) to c) are reapplied exclusively to the matches between the two teams in question to determine the final rankings of the two teams. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria e) to i) apply in the order given;

e) superior goal difference in all group matches;

f) higher number of goals scored in all group matches;

g) position in the UEFA national team coefficient ranking system;

h) fair play conduct of the teams (final tournament);

i) drawing of lots

Paragraph 8.08: If two teams which have the same number of points, the same number of goals scored and conceded play their last group match against each other and are still equal at the end of that match, the ranking of the two teams in question is determined by kicks from the penalty mark, provided no other teams within the group have the same number of points on completion of all group matches. Should more than two teams have the same number of points, the criteria listed under paragraph 8.07 apply.

Source: UEFA.com

Link: Euro 2012 regulations (PDF document)

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One Response to Qualification status: It’s complicated

  1. David Christie says:

    Using the national team coefficient to resolve ties seems unfair to me since the group seedings were determined using the coefficent too (apart from for the host countries). So the teams with the better coefficient already have an advantage of having an easier draw.

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