Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate
soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.
Read earlier columns
A history of crazy formats: Part II
My last column looked at the formats used in the five World Cup finals held
between 1930 and 1954 - the period of the competition's infancy.
Three of those five World Cups did not have a full field of 16 finalists and
the shortfalls affected tournament organisation in one way or another:
- Uruguay 1930 used a group phase to produce four semi-finalists but a full
knockout tournament would have been played if there had been 16 teams
participating rather than the 13 that eventually turned up
- France 1938 was a knockout tournament but with only 15 teams there, one
country got a bye through to the quarter-finals
- Brazil 1950 had arranged four groups of four but when two teams from the
same group withdrew, that group was reduced to two contestants and,
consequently, only one match
So I spent some time looking at the reasons why those World Cups didn't have
a full complement of teams. It also took a bit of time to go through the
consequences of the hopeless formats used in 1950 and 1954.
By 1958, the authors of the formats used in the previous two World Cups had,
presumably, been safely locked up in a lunatic asylum. And, as Peter
Goldstein has described in his excellent The group stage - an analysis (1)
piece, the result was the founding of the modern structure used for the
finals of the World Cup.
Of course, there have been several different formats used in the last 44
years but a couple of things have remained constant. The most obvious of
those constants is that, from 1958 onwards, the tournament has had initial
groups of four countries which have played a proper round robin. From there,
at least two teams in each group have advanced to the next stage of the
Sweden 1958 (Group-knockout)
Not only was a proper round robin reintroduced in the group phase in 1958,
the playing of extra time (in group matches) was abandoned. There was one
remnant of the 1954 format, however, and that was the provision for
play-offs to decide second and third place in a group if those two teams
were tied on points. Goal difference (or goal average) was still not used to
Of the 16 qualifiers, four came from "eastern" Europe, four came from
"western" Europe, four came from Latin America and, for the first and only
time, all four British countries qualified. (The practice of having the
British Home Championship double as a World Cup qualifying group had been
discontinued.) It was quite a remarkable outcome given that this was the
first World Cup in which the European qualifying groups hadn't been
organised on a regional basis. And the result of having four different
geographic areas - however loosely they were defined - each producing four
contestants for the finals allowed the organisers to neatly sidestep the
vexed question of seeding teams. Instead, it was decided that each group
would have one team from each of those geographic zones. So from having two
seeds per group in 1954 (which didn't play each other) the 1958 edition had
The draw had been held in February (tragically, just a couple of days after
the Munich air disaster which killed a number of Manchester United players
and staff, and several journalists as well). The outcome was the following
Pool 1: Czechoslovakia, W.Germany, N.Ireland, Argentina
Pool 2: Yugoslavia, France, Scotland, Paraguay
Pool 3: Hungary, Sweden, Wales, Mexico
Pool 4: Soviet Union, Austria, England, Brazil
You might have noticed that I listed the teams in each pool in the same
order - "eastern" Europe, "western" Europe, United Kingdom, Latin America.
As goal difference wasn't used to separate teams that finished second and
third, a play-off was needed for three of the four groups and, remarkably,
each one pitted a team from eastern Europe against a British team.
In Pool 1, Czechoslovakia and Northern Ireland each recorded a win, a draw
and a loss. The Ulstermen had beaten the Czechs 1-0 in their opening match
and, in the play-off, Northern Ireland triumphed again with a 2-1 win after
Wales and Hungary were the contestants in the Pool 3 play-off. Both had 3
points from their group games - Hungary had a win, a loss and a draw; Wales
had drawn all three matches. The Welsh took the play-off 2-1 and progressed
to the quarter-finals.
Surprised that the mighty Hungarian goal machine of 1954 was knocked out by
Wales and failed to reach the quarter-finals? Don't be. 1956 was the year of
the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the national team was broken up when a
number of great players (including Puskás and Kocsis) expatriated
themselves. A few of the '54 stars did remain but they had passed their
The Pool 4 play-off was the only one in which a British team lost. England
(which, like Wales, had three draws from its three group matches) faced the
USSR which had a win, a draw and a loss. The Soviets won 1-0.
It had been an unfortunate World Cup for England. Every team from the UK
had, in some way, been affected by the Munich air disaster but none as badly
as England which lost four international players. [A sad parallel to the
Italian team of 1950 - it had suffered an even greater decimation from the
Superga air crash which killed every member of the brilliant Torino team
that was in the plane.]
Football outcomes can be a little strange sometimes. None of the three
play-off winners had a better goal difference (from the group matches) than
the team they defeated. Northern Ireland (4 scored - 5 conceded) knocked out
the Czechs (8-4) and Wales (3-3) knocked out Hungary (6-3). [In Pool 4, both
England and Russia had scored 4 and conceded 4 before their play-off.] And,
though I didn't mention it in the 1954 section, the same thing happened
then. West Germany had a worse goal difference than the Turks but beat them
in a play-off and ditto Switzerland, which downed Italy.
But the 1958 play-offs would take their toll. As they were held two days
after the final round robin group games and two days before the
quarter-finals, they must have put the teams that advanced from them at a
disadvantage and, not surprisingly, all three play-off winners lost their
For the quarter-finals, a measure of sanity prevailed with the group winners
paired off against runners-up. Further, the 1958 system ensured that the two
teams that advanced from a group went to opposite sides of the knockout
draw. [Regular readers of my columns would know this is one of my pet
It's barely worth reporting from the semi-finals onwards, unaffected as they
were by "format factors". For the record, this was the World Cup where
Brazil finally came good and took the trophy with a 5-2 win over Sweden in
Chile 1962 (Group-knockout)
Two significant changes were made for 1962 - one good and one bad.
The good was that goal average was used to separate teams in the group stage
- so no play-offs for situations where two teams were tied (on points) for
The bad was that the last two matches in any group were not played
simultaneously. This meant that one or both of the teams that played the
last group game (after their two group rivals had completed their program)
might have an advantage. This arrangement wouldn't create any drama in 1962
but it certainly did in later years.
Now I did say goal average not goal difference. (I have this straight from
FIFA's web site so I assume it must be correct!) You know that goal
difference means the number of goals a team scores minus the number of goals
it concedes. Goal average means the number of goals scored divided by the
number of goals conceded. So a team can have a better goal average (when
compared to another team) but a worse goal difference. Consider the
following: Team A has scored 7 goals and conceded 4 while Team B has scored
4 and conceded 2. With goal difference, Team A is ahead by +3 to +2. But
with goal average, Team B has an advantage of +2.00 to +1.75.
I prefer goal difference - of course, it is the standard today - but at
least using goal average was an improvement on going to a play-off.
Four different venues were used and each hosted an entire group. This method
of organisation necessitated the problem I mentioned earlier - a group's
final two games could not be played simultaneously.
The "one venue for one group" arrangement did, however, eliminate the
"Brazil 1950" problem of teams needing wretched travel schedules to complete
their program. But, in truth, three of the cities used are very close
together (Santiago, Rancagua and Viña del Mar) and only Arica, up near the
Peruvian border, is a considerable distance away.
At least one group illustrated the problem of the "non-simultaneous" finish.
In Group 4, England and Bulgaria played the last match and, before they
kicked off, the group's table looked like this:
P W D L F-A Pts
Hungary 3 2 1 0 8-2 5
Argentina 3 1 1 1 2-3 3
England 2 1 0 1 4-3 2
Bulgaria 2 0 0 2 1-7 0
Hungary and Argentina had played out a scoreless draw the day before so the
English players knew that they only needed a draw to qualify for the
knockout phase. Not surprisingly, their match also ended 0-0.
Now, if Hungary-Argentina and England-Bulgaria were played at the same time,
the English players couldn't have settled for the draw because they would
have been aware that they would be on their way home if Argentina beat
Of course, there's no scandal here (wait for 1978 and '82!) but playing the
last match gave England a definite advantage. England also became the first
team to qualify for the knockout phase of the World Cup finals on goal
Again, group winners were paired off against group runners-up in the
quarter-finals and, again, the two teams that advanced from a group went to
opposite sides of the knockout draw. That structure enabled Czechoslovakia
and Brazil to meet in the Final after they had already played each other in
a group match.
The Czechs and the Brazilians had drawn their group game 0-0. In the Final,
Brazil came from behind to win 3-1.
England 1966 (Group-knockout)
Finally some format stability. For England 1966, there was absolutely no
change to the arrangements that were used in 1962.
The non-simultaneous group finishes were still in place but they certainly
didn't need to be. Unlike the tournament held in Chile, the groups for the
1966 finals would each share two venues. London hosted Group 1 and five of
its six games were at Wembley while one match was played at the now defunct
White City. Group 2 was shared between Birmingham and Sheffield; Liverpool
and Manchester hosted Group 3; and Group 4 was played in Middlesbrough and
The 1966 format was quite straightforward and, although current day
tournament organisation has some points of difference, the structure of the
'62, '66 and '70 finals is, essentially, the same structure used now.
There were two hidden nasties in 1966 - the non-simultaneous group finishes
that I keep harping on and the fact that, by now, replays had been abandoned
for knockout matches that were drawn after extra time (except the Final).
Had a quarter-final or semi-final been level after extra time, it would have
been decided by lot!
While non-simultaneous group finishes would cause grief in later editions, a
team has never been eliminated from the World Cup finals by lots (though it
has happened in qualifying). It could still happen in the future because,
although penalty shoot-outs can now decide knockout matches, FIFA will use
lots to separate teams after the group stage if they are tied on points,
goal difference, goals scored and match result.
Two years after England '66, the European Championship wasn't so fortunate.
In one of the Euro '68 semi-finals, neither Italy nor the Soviet Union could
produce a goal in 120 minutes of football so the match was decided by the
toss of a coin. Italy was the lucky team and that would have been a relief
to the organisers given that the Italians were hosting the tournament! Three
days later, the decider between Italy and Yugoslavia was also level after
extra time but that match was replayed and the hosts finally won 2-0.
Most of the controversy in 1966 occurred on the pitch. The chaos that the
England-Argentina quarter-final descended into when the Argentine captain
was sent off; the similarly ill-tempered semi-final between West Germany and
the Soviet Union; and how could I not mention that goal scored by Geoff
Hurst to put the host nation 3-2 ahead in extra time in the Final. (Of
course it was a bloody goal - just watch Roger Hunt's reaction.) England
ultimately defeated the Germans 4-2.
Mexico 1970 (Group-knockout)
Again, there was no format tampering for 1970 - the last 16-team finals to
use the group-knockout system. The only significant changes were on the
playing field where red and yellow cards where used for the first time.
Also, teams were finally allowed to make substitutions. The two nasties from
1966 were still around but fortunately they were both dormant again.
For the first time since 1962, a team was eliminated on goal average. This
occurred in Group 2 where Uruguay (3 points, 2 goals scored, 1 conceded)
progressed to the quarter-finals at the expense of Sweden (3 points, 2
scored, 2 conceded). The Swedes beat Uruguay 1-0 in their final group match
but they needed a winning margin of at least 2 goals.
The demands of television were, by now, making quite an impact on tournament
organisation. Many matches, including the Final, kicked off in fierce midday
heat. Why? Because this meant prime time viewing for the European audience -
and, for that matter, it wouldn't be too inconvenient for South Americans.
How wretched it must have been for the players, particularly the ones used
to cooler climates.
Nevertheless, Mexico 1970 witnessed plenty of thrilling football and a lot
of the unforgettable matches were in the knockout phase.
I'm sure no one reading this doesn't know that the Brazilians were crowned
World Champions again in 1970. It was their third victory and, as a result,
they gained permanent possession of the Jules Rimet Trophy. For 1974, a new
trophy was introduced and - though the timing was coincidental - a new era
West Germany 1974 (Group-group-knockout)
I suppose I can't make a statement about a new era beginning in 1974 without
providing some explanation. It was the year in which João Havelange took
over at FIFA; the new perpetual trophy (simply named the FIFA World Cup) was
used for the first time; and, the format was changed in a way that meant
teams that reached the Final would be playing their seventh match of the
While it is more personal opinion than fact, I would also add that 1974
isn't far from the point where football tournaments started being organised
with great deference to the money that could be made through television.
Further, any ideal that successful World Cup winners simply needed to
outscore their opponents (and that a solid defence was a mere luxury) surely
ended with Brazil's 1970 triumph.
There are plenty of statistics that can justify that last statement but the
most convenient one to highlight would be that the 1970 Brazilians were the
last champions to average better than 3 goals per game at the finals - and
the last to concede more than a goal a game.
The rise of Havelange wouldn't make an immediate impact but would instead be
felt in later tournaments. Eventually representation for Africa and Asia was
increased and the finals were extended to 24 teams in 1982 and to 32 teams
But the consequences of bringing in a system which required teams to play
seven times (to win the trophy) were felt immediately. From 1974 onwards,
the World Cup became more of an endurance test and most of the tournament
winners avoided spending too many pennies in their opening games. In 1970,
Brazil won 6 matches out of 6 but, since 1974, no team has won the World Cup
with a perfect 7 wins out of 7. That doesn't mean it may not happen in the
future but you can see that even the most convincing winners in recent years
have picked up at least a draw somewhere.
I have called the 1974 format "group-group-knockout" but, in truth, only the
Final was a knockout match (and the Third Place Match if you think that
matters). The initial four groups of four remained in place but the top two
teams from each group advanced to two further groups of four. The winners of
those two second phase groups would go to the Final and the two runners-up
would play off in the Third Place Match. This system resembled the one used
in Brazil in 1950. The only real differences were that, in Brazil, only
group winners advanced from the First Round, there was only one second phase
group and there was no scheduled Final.
A couple of other interesting notes - goal difference was brought in to
replace goal average and penalty kicks would have been used as a last resort
if the Final was tied after a replay.
Two teams went out on goal difference: Italy, (3 points and +1 GD) was
squeezed out by Argentina (3 and +2); and Scotland (would you believe it?)
managed to get 4 points out of a maximum 6 but still got eliminated. The
Scots had a goal difference of +2 and finished behind Yugoslavia (4 points
and +9) and Brazil (4 and +3). That outcome arose because those three teams
drew their matches against each other and they all beat Zaire.
I recently exchanged a couple of e-mails with Peter Goldstein and he
wondered if the 1974 system, with its lack of knockout matches, was brought
in to avoid deciding tied matches with penalty kicks. [And thanks for those
facts you gave me, Peter.] Perhaps I'm more of a cynic. I'd say it's more
likely the organisers worked out that the 1974 format extended the total
number of games played by six. We know what that means - more TV revenue!
But it also meant the likelihood of more meaningless matches and the plain
fact that there was no advantage in winning a first phase group. In the four
previous World Cups, group winners were rewarded with a game against
runners-up in their first knockout match. In 1974, it simply didn't matter
if a team was a First Round winner or runner-up as the two groups in the
second group stage were always going to be of similar strength.
This was perfectly demonstrated by the hosts and eventual champions, West
Germany. Having wrapped up passage to the Second Round with wins in their
first two matches, the West Germans had nothing to play for when they faced
East Germany in their third match. East Germany won 1-0; the West Germans
finished second in the group; and, consequently, they avoided the thrilling
Dutch side in the second group phase. Hmmm...
Two meaningless matches were played in the second phase groups. East Germany
and Argentina completed their program having both lost their opening two
games in Group A - neither of them could even make it to the Third Place
Match. In Group B, Sweden and Yugoslavia kicked off in exactly the same
situation. Now, unless a World Cup is a full knockout tournament, it is
impossible to guarantee that there will be no meaningless games. But surely
they should not be taking place at the business end of the competition?
Fortunately, the other side of the coin was that the Netherlands-Brazil and
West Germany-Poland matches were de facto semi-finals as, in both games,
both teams could reach the Final with a victory. But, hey, isn't that what
happens in a knockout semi anyway?
The West Germans scored the only goal of their match against Poland and then
they defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in the Final. They became the first team
to win the trophy after losing an earlier match since... ummm... West
Germany did it in 1954.
Argentina 1978 (Group-group-knockout)
The Germans would soon have company. Four years later, Argentina also won
the World Cup after losing an earlier match in the finals.
There were a number of similarities between 1974 and 1978. The format was
unchanged, both tournaments were won by the hosts (after they lost a first
phase group match) and the Dutch were the beaten Finalists on both
With no change to the format, all the problems of 1974 remained - including
the fact that teams gained no real advantage from winning their first phase
groups (compared to teams that finished second). Argentina was therefore not
disadvantaged when it lost its last (First Round) group match against Italy.
Both teams had already qualified for the Second Round, a scenario similar to
West Germany's four years earlier. Sure, the Argentineans may have had some
incentive to win because, if they topped the group, they would play their
next three matches in Buenos Aires (rather than go to Rosario, over 300
kilometres from the capital). In the end, their loss mattered little.
From here, I won't highlight every single case of teams going out on goal
difference as there will be frequent instances as we progress through the
remaining tournaments. But I have to mention that it happened to the poor
Scots again. (How do they do it?)
When Scotland faced the Netherlands in its final group game, the players
knew they needed to win by three goals to avoid elimination. No chance, you
think? In the 68th minute, Archie Gemmill, jinking his way through the Dutch
defence, scored a memorable goal to put Scotland 3-1 up but, after a few
minutes of Scottish wishful thinking, Johnny Rep pulled one back for the
Dutch and that was the end of that.
In the Second Round, another team would be eliminated on goal difference
but, on that occasion, the circumstances would be far more controversial.
In fact, the lead up to the 1978 edition was surrounded by controversy.
Serious concerns were raised about the military junta which had seized power
in Argentina two years earlier. [Under its disgraceful rule, thousands of
people were imprisoned (without trial), tortured or they simply "vanished".]
Many felt the tournament should be relocated and there was talk of teams
(and players) boycotting.
Ultimately no teams boycotted and now I'll come back to the Second Round
Yes, I'm referring to that match between Argentina and Peru. Now, there is a
remote chance that you might not know what transpired in this disastrous
episode so allow me to take you through it.
Argentina and Brazil were drawn in the same Second Round group and the South
American giants both opened with a win - Brazil defeated Peru 3-0 while
Argentina beat Poland 2-0. Next, the old foes played each other and drew
0-0. If they both won their last group match, goal difference would decide.
On the afternoon of 21 June, the Brazilians recorded a 3-1 win over Poland
and that gave them a goal difference of +5 (in the second phase group). The
Argentineans kicked off their match against Peru in the evening and, with a
goal difference of +2, the hosts knew they needed to win by at least 4 goals
to win the group and reach the Final.
Argentina won 6-0.
It was a disgrace. Even if you want to believe that the Peruvians weren't
bought, the following two points are irrefutable:
- Peru was already eliminated and had nothing to play for while Argentina
was playing for a place in the Final. This is a situation that cannot arise
if a knockout system is employed for the tournament's second phase
- The scheduling of the Argentina-Peru match gave the Argentineans a
definite advantage because Brazil-Poland had already finished. If the two
matches had been played at the same time, the host nation's players could
not have taken the field knowing exactly how many goals they needed
Naturally the Brazilians were outraged and, despite Argentina's victory over
the Netherlands in the Final (3-1 after extra time), it's hard to imagine
that the good citizens of downtown Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo believed
that the 1978 World Cup passed into worthy hands.
I had already highlighted some of the problems associated with
non-simultaneous group finishes and, although I have the benefit of
beautiful hindsight, it's not unfair to say that 1978 was a
farce/scandal/conspiracy waiting to happen.
One more World Cup would be played before second phase groups and
non-simultaneous group finishes were buried - hopefully for good. FIFA was
probably persuaded that tournament restructure was necessary after another
notorious episode in 1982.
But there would still be changes for 1982 as the finals were extended to 24
teams. As we shall find out in Part III of this series, 24 was quite an
Info on how
the World Cup was founded and about the trophy as well.
on every match in every tournament.
Interesting columns about the past, present and future of the World Cup.
with appearances in the World Cup. Detailed info on every country.
of many of the most influential players in history.
An A-Z collection
of strange and different stories in World Cup history.
A big collection
of various statistics and records.
since it was introduced in 1966.
knowledge about the WC. Three different levels. No prizes, just for fun.
lots of stuff. For instance Best Goals, Best Players and Best Matches.
of links to other soccer sites with World Cup connection.
and buttons for you to link to us if you want.
A little information
on who keeps this site available.