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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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 competition.

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 eliminate teams.

    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 no seeds.

    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 four groups:

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 extra time.

    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 Pusks and Kocsis) expatriated themselves. A few of the '54 stars did remain but they had passed their prime.

    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 quarter-final.

    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 subjects!]

    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 the Final.

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 second place.

    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 Via 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 Hungary.

    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 average.

    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 Sunderland.

    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 began.

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 Joo 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 tournament.

    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 for 1998.

    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 occasions.

    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 shenanigans.

    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 So 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 awkward number.



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