Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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FIFA's Night of Agony

    21 June 1990. It's not a particularly remarkable date in World Cup history - but it might have been. In fact, it could have been a disaster for both Italia 90 and FIFA. That evening, the tournament's last two group phase matches kicked off.

    Group E had been decided a couple of hours earlier so now the world waited to see which Group F teams would progress to the Round of 16. Group F had been based in Italy's two famous island-regions of Sardinia and Sicily and, on that night, the Sardinians hosted England and Egypt while the Sicilians saw the Netherlands take on the Republic of Ireland.

    FIFA must have been watching these two matches very nervously.

    Sicily, of course, is famous for another notorious organisation but that wasn't the reason for the nerves. Nor was it the threat of hooliganism that would have had the sport's top administrators chewing their nails.

    No, it was purely the outcome of the two matches that concerned FIFA. Group F was completely deadlocked and the need to decide all four positions by drawing lots was getting too close for comfort.

    Thus far, the ultra-tight group had seen a 1-1 draw between England and Ireland and then the Netherlands and Egypt played out a 1-1 draw as well. The next two matches also failed to produce a winner: England had two goals disallowed in a scoreless draw with the Netherlands and, the day after that, the Egypt-Ireland match - arguably the most boring game in World Cup history - also finished goalless.

    So, going into the 21 June fixtures, the four combatants each had the same record: 2 draws, 1 goal scored, 1 goal conceded, 2 points.

    Sometimes I can't help feeling that pulling little plastic balls out of bags and revealing their contents is the most fun some FIFA officials have in their lives. But it would have been a disaster to have to use that procedure to determine the final ranking of each team in Group F.

    Can you imagine the reaction if, after two years of preparation and qualifying, a team went home on the drawing of lots? All that was needed for this crazy scenario to become reality was that both matches, England-Egypt and Netherlands-Ireland, resulted in 0-0 draws (or both were 1-1 draws, etc).

    If a group in Korea/Japan produces a similar outcome, two teams would go home through a lottery but the daft system in place for the World Cup tournaments of 1986, 1990 and 1994 allowed four of the six third-place getters from the group phase through to the knockout phase.

    If Group F's third team finished with three points, it would be enough to advance because every other group in Italia 90 had been decided and, thus far, two third-placed teams had only two points (Austria and Scotland).

    You probably know how it all turned out but, as the name "World Cup Archive" might indicate, we like being a bit retro on this site. So let's go through the night chronologically and assess the potential outcomes.

    Scoreless draws in both Sicily and Sardinia would have left all four teams deadlocked with a record of 3 draws, 1 goal scored, 1 goal conceded, 3 points. But less than 10 minutes after kick-off, Ruud Gullit scored to give the Dutch an early lead against Ireland. If things stayed as they were, the Netherlands would win the group with 4 points (still 2 points for a win in 1990), England and Egypt would be deadlocked on 3 points and Ireland would go home with just 2 points. This wouldn't be too bad - the only lottery that would be needed would be to decide the final positions of England and Egypt but they would both progress to the Round of 16 regardless.

    There were no more goals until both games reached half time. England had pushed hard for a breakthrough against Egypt and it finally came when Mark Wright, the tall, blonde English defender, headed his country into the lead early in the second half.

    If there were no more goals in either game, England and the Netherlands would be locked on 4 points with 2 goals scored and 1 conceded. A lottery would have been needed to decide the group winner but both would go through. Suddenly, the third-place scenario was quite messy. Egypt and Ireland were both on the verge of elimination as each sat on 2 points and a goals record of 1 for, 2 against. But now, who would be the fourth best of the third-placed teams?

    I had mentioned that, thus far, Austria and Scotland were the only teams that had finished third in their respective groups with just two points. Only two of the six third-place getters would be eliminated and if both final Group F matches finished 1-0, there would be three third-place getters with two points. It would then come down to goal difference to decide which of the three survived and that would have left the third team in Group F out of the picture.

    Austria and Scotland, however, had an identical record! Both had 1 win, 2 losses, 2 goals for and 3 against. Their extra goal would put them both ahead of the third team in Group F but how would FIFA decide whether the Austrians or Scots advanced?

    Yes, this would probably have needed a drawing of lots. [Actually, FIFA need not have bothered - Scotland would have lost for sure.]

    Before this potential outcome threatened to become reality, Niall Quinn equalised for Ireland in Sicily. OK, now the situation was roughly the same as it was at half time - except that the four teams had done some position swapping. England would win the group with 4 points, the Netherlands and Ireland would be level with 3 each and Egypt faced elimination with 2 points. Again, this wouldn't be too bad. The Netherlands and Ireland would both survive but a lottery would decide which finished second and which finished third. Austria and Scotland were now back out of the picture.

    Are you still with me? I hope so because there's only about 20 minutes left at both venues. As Ruud Doevendans described in his most recent column, the Dutch and Irish players settled for the draw knowing that, as long as England kept its lead, they would both go through to the last 16. FIFA's nightmare scenario of having a lottery deciding all four positions in Group F could now only eventuate if Egypt found an equalising goal back in Sardinia.

    Looking back, I suppose the chance of Egypt scoring was quite slim. This, after all, was a team that hadn't yet scored a goal in open play at Italia 90. (The solitary Egyptian goal in Group F came from a late penalty against the Netherlands.)

    But, though an equaliser seemed unlikely, it must have been an agonising 20 minutes for FIFA's men. How they must have prayed that England kept its lead!

    FIFA would have one moment of great alarm before the night was over. In the dying minutes in Sardinia, England's veteran goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, misjudged an Ahmed Ramzy corner but Ismail Youssef headed wide. It was Egypt's last chance - and when the Swiss referee, Kurt Röthlisberger, put an end to proceedings, FIFA, doubtless, breathed some heavy sighs of relief.

    The date of 21 June 1990 passed unobtrusively into soccer history. In the end, lots were only needed to decide who would be second and who would be third. It wasn't a terribly big deal. At the time, the two teams everyone wanted to avoid were West Germany and Italy. Third place in Group F would play the Germans in the Round of 16 while the second-placed team would fare little better by being drawn to face Italy in a quarter-final.

    In the event, the plastic balls placed Ireland second. Italy defeated Ireland, 1-0, in their quarter-final but not before the Irish eliminated Romania on penalties (after 120 goalless minutes). The Dutch were drawn third and lost, 2-1, to West Germany.

    But if Youssef's header had found the back of the net, the four-way lottery could have become a reality and we'd never have forgotten it. One of the four teams would have been eliminated with an identical record to the team that "won" the group. The unlucky country would have been incensed and its media would have almost certainly gone into a spin. I can just imagine the collection of descriptions that might have been used to label the farce - they probably would have ranged from "injustice" to "conspiracy".

    Yes, you'd better believe it. FIFA - and the 1990 World Cup - avoided all that because England kept its lead on that tense Sardinian night.

    That lottery for second and third would have sent someone home if the World Cup was organised the way it is now. Ironically, both Ireland and the Netherlands were able to survive because of the ghastly practice of allowing third-place getters through to the knockout phase.

    Surely that system, however, encouraged much of the negative football seen in the tournament. Check out the records: Ireland was a quarter-finalist with no wins, 4 draws, 1 loss, 2 goals scored and 3 conceded. Argentina was the tournament's runner-up with 2 wins, 3 draws, 2 losses, 5 scored and 4 conceded.

Not very inspiring is it?

    A slight improvement was made for 1994 with the overdue introduction of three points for a win. 1998 was better still. No matter what you think of the extension of the World Cup finals to 32 countries, at least it ended the fiasco of third-placed teams advancing to the last 16.

    The fright of 21 June 1990 should have been enough to convince FIFA that, sooner or later, teams will get eliminated from the World Cup on the drawing of lots. But unfortunately, FIFA is like so many governing bodies - too often it reacts to problems after they've occurred when earlier warning signs, or plain common sense, should have been enough to precipitate change.

    I find it extraordinary that, nearly 12 years after that close shave in Group F, the rules regarding group ranking are fundamentally unaltered. [In case you were wondering: Chapter 17, Article 28, Paragraph 6 of the Regulations for the 2002 World Cup Korea/Japan.]

    I'll bet any money you like that there will be a change for 2006 if a team is sent packing from Korea/Japan because it lost a lottery. The outcry that will inevitably follow such an occurrence would ensure that FIFA acted.

    Now you may be asking, what's the solution? We can't have penalty kicks. That's OK at the end of a knockout match but it could be a logistical nightmare for the group phase.

    But there are other determinants that could be used. UEFA has two extra methods to separate deadlocked teams at the European Nations Championship:

- Coefficient of points from the last two qualifying competitions for the final rounds of the 1998 World Cup and EURO 2000 (points gained divided by the number of matches played)

- Fair Play conduct of the teams.

Hey, that's more like it!

    In a competition where the overwhelming majority of matches are actually qualifying games, it is surely not out of the question that countries, which are completely deadlocked at the end of the group phase, could be ranked on the basis of their respective records in those qualifiers.

    And in a competition where fair play is encouraged - to the point that FIFA emblazons the words "Fair Play Please" on its banners - surely it would not be foolish to reward better disciplined teams when every other method of ranking teams has been exhausted.

    Of course, these methods have their weaknesses. For instance, it could be unfair to compare the qualifying performances of teams that come from different confederations. And how do you account for a host nation that has no qualifying results because it gained automatic entry?

But anything has to be better than a lottery. Anything!

    FIFA will discover this when the day comes that it eliminates a team (or two) by drawing lots. Sadly, the agony of the night of 21 June 1990 wasn't a big enough wake-up call.

If Youssef had scored...

* Many thanks to Ruud Doevendans for his assistance with this column.



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