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 III

    And now we reach the end of our epic journey. It may, at times, have seemed a trivial exercise. Why should we care about formats and tournament organisation? What difference does it make? Surely the best will prevail and we'll get some half decent football regardless?

    But as UEFA's recent decision to remove the "golden goal" shows, this isn't just a pedantic glance at history. This is an ongoing debate as the way teams approach these competitions is influenced (perhaps determined) by the ways in which the competitions are designed. Most football managers are not stupid. Nor are they employed to entertain or perform a public service. They live or die by the results they achieve and if that means occasionally (or regularly!) boring the socks off the watching public then the overwhelming majority do not hesitate.

    It is the responsibility of the sport's administrators to present formats that achieve the aims that most fans would endorse - ensuring that the competition is fair so there is a high probability that the most deserving teams are rewarded; and ensuring that there is sufficient incentive for teams to perform well throughout the tournament so that we are entertained by the football on display.

    Many of the World Cup's finals tournaments have had formats which have fallen short of satisfying one or both of those aims. We finished Part II of this series looking at the 1978 edition and there can be little doubt that the group-group set up failed the entertainment test and the non-simultaneous group finishes failed the fairness test. Today we start with 1982. It also failed both tests.

Spain 1982 (Group-group-knockout)

    It was expansion time in 1982 as 24 teams participated in the World Cup finals.

    Hmmm. 24 is a funny number isn't it? I mean, what happens if we keep dividing it by 2? We get 12, then 6, then 3, then ... hang on, that doesn't work does it? That trick works with numbers 16 and 32 - we keep dividing them by 2 and we eventually get to 1 - but it doesn't work with 24. Come on guys, how are we going to get around this?

    If there was a satisfactory way around this problem, FIFA never discovered it. And that's quite tragic. We got crazy formats in 1974 and '78 and that number, 24, meant that a sane format wouldn't return until 1998 when the number 32 came to the rescue.

    Sure, you might think that 32 countries at the finals allows too many mediocre teams to qualify but, believe me, from an organisational point of view, 32 is better than 24.

    FIFA's first attempt at dealing with this ugly, ugly number resulted in a format which was, in effect, nothing more than a modified version of the group-group-knockout used in the previous two editions. With the tournament commencing with 6 groups of 4, 12 teams advanced to the Second Round (the top 2 from each group). Then they would be placed into 4 groups of 3 from which only the winners advanced. From there, the knockout principle would apply with 2 semi-finals producing the Finalists.

    Potential World Cup winners would, therefore, play one more knockout match and one less group match than their counterparts in the two previous editions. That was a small bonus but, nonetheless, this was one highly convoluted format.

    The main problems remained - non-simultaneous group finishes and the fact that first phase group winners gained no advantage over teams that finished second. Both of these weaknesses would combine in one notorious match.

    Indeed, in some cases, it was definitely better to finish second in the First Round groups than it was to finish first. The English, for instance, must have been wondering why they bothered to knock over France in their first match of the competition. For winning Group 4, England drew Spain (the hosts) and West Germany in the next group phase. For finishing second, France was then grouped with Austria and Northern Ireland. Who do you think came out ahead?

    Similarly, Brazil - the only country other than England with a 100% record from the initial group phase - got "rewarded" with a second phase group which contained Italy and Argentina!

    It almost goes without saying that some, maybe most, of the leading teams didn't go all out to win their groups in the First Round.

    Not only did Italy finish second in Group 1, it did so by the barest of margins. Italy and Cameroon both had 3 points (from 3 draws) and both, of course, had the same goal difference. But the Italians had scored 2 goals in their 3 matches and that was enough to put them ahead of the unlucky Cameroonians who only scored 1. This was the first ever instance of a team being eliminated when it was level on points and goal difference (with a team that advanced) but behind on number of goals scored. The group was headed by Poland which had recorded the only win (the other 5 matches were all drawn).

    Soon, another team would be eliminated because it scored fewer goals than one of its group rivals. This occurred in Group 5 where Spain (3 points, 3 goals scored, 3 conceded) edged out Yugoslavia (3 points, 2 scored, 2 conceded). Northern Ireland was the surprise winner of that group.

    Argentina, the defending champion, and France also finished second in their respective First Round groups although neither squeezed through quite as narrowly.

    It's now time for the traditional special mention for Scotland. In my last column, I highlighted how the Scots managed to take 4 points from their 3 group games in the 1974 finals but still failed to advance to the Second Round. Reading a recent Matthew Monk column reminded me of something I neglected to mention - the 1974 Scots were the first team in the history of the World Cup finals to be eliminated without losing a match. In 1982, Scotland created another record - an extraordinary one that could surely never be beaten by any other team. For the third consecutive World Cup, the Scots were eliminated on goal difference. [Recently, I made a table of all the teams that have ever been eliminated from the tournament on goal average/difference or goals scored. It has never happened to any other country more than once!]

    And now for the scandal. It occurred in Group 2 where West Germany and Austria were expected to account for Chile and Algeria. But the group opened with a shock - Algeria defeated the Germans, 2-1, with a late winner. The Austrians showed how it could be done and took maximum points from their first two games with wins over the less fancied teams. In the meantime, the Germans pulled themselves together and defeated Chile 4-1. The group's second-last game was between Algeria and Chile and the African team recorded its second win, this time by the odd goal in five. Before West Germany met Austria on the following day, the table looked like this:

               P  W  D  L  F-A Pts
Austria        2  2  0  0  3-0   4
Algeria        3  2  0  1  5-5   4
West Germany   2  1  0  1  5-3   2
Chile          3  0  0  3  3-8   0
    West Germany simply had to win to qualify for the Second Round. But if the Germans won by 3 or more goals, the Austrians would be eliminated. In a disgraceful episode that revived bad memories of Argentina-Peru four years earlier, the Germans took an early lead and then the game degenerated into farce as the players strolled around the pitch for 80 minutes making no real effort to score.

    The Algerians were furious - just as the Brazilians had been in 1978 - and, it has to be said, similar organisational weaknesses contributed to the fiasco. The non-simultaneous group finishes allowed both Austria and West Germany to do their sums before they played and, as we've seen, second phase groups removed the incentive to win first phase groups. West Germany ended up heading Group 2 but it was the Austrians who got a better draw for the next round. No wonder they were happy enough to lose.

The Second Round groups were as follows:

Group A: Belgium, Poland, USSR
Group B: England, West Germany, Spain
Group C: Argentina, Italy, Brazil
Group D: Austria, France, Northern Ireland

    Each group was confined to a single city and, in another rare outbreak of common sense, the knockout principle was now partly in place. If the first match in one of these mini groups did not end in a draw, the losing team would play the second match while the winning team played the third. That ensured no meaningless matches would be played in this phase.

    Amazingly, all six seeded teams went into Groups B and C. This outcome could not have occurred if three of the seeds hadn't failed to win their initial groups. Given that Brazil and England were the only seeds which distinguished themselves in the First Round, it wouldn't be unfair to say that the others didn't really deserve an easier path to the semi-finals.

    In Group A, Poland opened up with a 3-0 win over Belgium so the Belgians were obliged to play next against the USSR. The Soviets won that game 1-0 and that meant that Poland only needed to draw the group's decisive match to get through to the semi-finals on goal difference. The Poles were content to share a goalless 90 minutes with the Soviets and advanced to the last four.

    Group B opened with another dull 0-0 draw. This time it was between England and West Germany. Next the Germans faced the hosts and beat them 2-1. Spain was now eliminated but still obliged to face England in the group's final match. The English needed to win by 2 goals (or 3-2 or 4-3 etc) but the Spaniards put up stiff resistance and yet another 0-0 draw meant that West Germany would be the team advancing to the semi-finals. England went home having joined a steadily increasing list of teams that were eliminated from a World Cup undefeated.

    While these second phase groups often encouraged draws and negative play, Group C proved an exception and it produced one of the World Cup's most unforgettable matches. Proceedings opened with Italy - which had certainly not inspired to this point - defeating Argentina 2-1. In the next match, the Brazilians went one better and beat Argentina 3-1. Thus a draw against Italy would have been enough to see Brazil through. It was not to be. In a match that deserves a chapter of its own, a Paolo Rossi inspired Italy defeated Brazil 3-2 and, against all odds, Italy went through.

    Group D produced the clearest winner. France defeated Austria 1-0 in the first match and then the Austrians drew with Northern Ireland. The French only needed a draw in the group's final match but they put 4 goals past the Ulstermen and cruised into the semis.

    West Germany and France were paired together in one semi-final and, despite having been in the same first phase group, Italy and Poland were paired in the other.

    Italy defeated Poland 2-0 in Barcelona. That was straightforward enough because both teams had played their Second Round groups there. But West Germany and France were obliged to play their semi in Seville. That was odd because both had played their Second Round groups in Madrid and the winner would need to fly back to Madrid for the Final. The tiring travel arrangements - in a World Cup where poor scheduling already meant that many games were played in extreme heat - were hideously unfair to the players.

    Even if you never saw the match, you've probably heard or read about it more times than you can remember: Schumacher clobbering Battiston; France going 3-1 up in extra time; and an unfit Rummenigge pulling one back for the Germans before Klaus Fischer equalised with a bicycle kick. Then we had the very first penalty shoot-out at the World Cup finals and West Germany triumphed.

    Had the Final been level after extra time there would have been a replay. In the event, normal time was all that was needed and Italy won 3-1.

    The 1982 format was so bad that even FIFA realised something better was needed for 1986. What we got was an improvement but although many problems were solved, new ones popped up.

Mexico 1986 (Group-knockout)

    Ahhh 24. How could they deal with that number this time?

    It was clear that second phase groups simply had to go and that the group-knockout system had to return for the first time since 1970 (when the tournament was also held in Mexico). This time the problem of 24 was "solved" by allowing the best four of the third placed teams from the group stage through to a 16 team knockout stage.

    Altogether now: HOORAY for the end of group-group. And another hooray for the decision to drop non-simultaneous group finishes. Both changes were long overdue.

    But it wasn't all milk and honey - far from it. Daytime kick offs in Mexico meant more matches played in ferocious heat. And the decision to allow four third place getters through to the Second Round allowed teams to qualify for the knockout stage even when they had played truly dire football in their group. Statistically, teams had a 2 in 3 chance of qualifying for the Second Round and many took full advantage of this increased probability. In fact, in both 1990 and 1994 (also tournaments in which third placed teams could get through), one of the Finalists finished third in its group. Yuk.

    This format also meant that penalty shoot-outs became a reality. Replays were never going to be viable with the knockout phase extended to four stages. Shoot-outs are a part of the sport now and, although a lot of fans don't like them, the amount of football played nowadays means that replays in competitions of this ilk are rarely possible. (And let's face it - no one has come up with a better solution.)

    Did I mention that teams playing dire football could qualify for the knockout stage? In Group E, Uruguay qualified for the Second Round despite only managing 2 draws and a loss and a goal difference of -5. No country has ever had a worse record in a First Round group and advanced to the next stage of the tournament. Bulgaria also went through with just 2 points from its 3 matches in Group A.

    Yes, it was almost difficult not to qualify for the Second Round with this format in place. (Though, admittedly, Scotland still managed to miss out in both this edition and 1990.) And, not surprisingly, some countries, which looked poor in the First Round, sprang to life when it really mattered.

    Belgium, for instance, was one of the third placed teams that made it through. In the Round of 16, the Belgians were given little chance against the Soviet Union, which had looked quite impressive in winning Group C. But, in one of the best matches of the series, Belgium snatched a 4-3 victory in extra time and went on to knock Spain out in a quarter-final.

    Whether it was by accident or design, the manner of the Belgians progress was precisely what this format encouraged - doing the bare minimum in the group stage before slipping into gear for the knockout matches.

    Denmark, on the other hand, was one of the teams that just didn't get it. The Danes had been one of the few combinations playing truly brilliant football in the group stage. Three victories in a tough group (1-0 over Scotland, 6-1 over Uruguay and 2-0 over West Germany) had pundits wondering if they could go all the way. But, although the Danes took the lead against Spain in their Round of 16 match, they eventually fell apart and lost 5-1 and that was the end of that.

    One team that did make it all the way to the Final was that old fox, West Germany. Even at the time - as a na´ve 12 year old kid - I wondered if it had suited the Germans to lose their last group match against Denmark. For winning the group, Denmark drew Spain and, if they won that, the winner of USSR-Belgium in the quarter-finals. For finishing second, the Germans got to play Morocco (who, admittedly, won Group F) in the Round of 16 and then Mexico.

    Still, it was nice to have a bigger knockout phase. Although it institutionalised penalties as a tiebreaker, and included a couple of teams that didn't deserve to get that far, it's hard to imagine that too many football fans were mourning the lack of a second group stage.

    The knockout matches included three penalty shoot-outs and, remarkably, all of them occurred at the quarter-final stage. The successful teams in the shoot-outs were Belgium (over Spain), France (over Brazil) and West Germany (over Mexico).

    Argentina, which benefited from Diego Maradona's blatant cheating in a 2-1 quarter-final win over England, was the only team in the last four which didn't need penalties to make the semi-finals. The Argentineans then defeated Belgium 2-0 and, in a memorable Final, they claimed the trophy with a 3-2 win over West Germany.

Italy 1990 (Group-knockout)

    There was absolutely no change to the format for Italy 1990 but the quality of football was far worse than it had been four years earlier. This was a shame because the tournament's organisation was far better than it had been in either Mexico or Spain. All matches were played in the late afternoon or evening; there were no really silly travel arrangements needed; and the playing surfaces were excellent. (A few of the playing surfaces in Mexico and in Argentina '78 had been quite average.)

    I can only put the poor football of Italia '90 down to one thing - the fact that many teams had learnt from the 1986 experience and realised that excelling in the group phase did not always yield much profit in the knockout phase. In 1986, the format was a new one so its permutations may not have been as obvious.

    It was nearly impossible for the respective teams and managers to have much idea of which team they'd end up facing in the first knockout round. Before the start of the group stage, this is how the draw for the Round of 16 looked:

B1 v A3/C3/D3
A2 v C2      
C1 v A3/B3/F3
D1 v B3/E3/F3
A1 v C3/D3/E3
F2 v B2      
F1 v E2      
E1 v D2      
    So if the Italians (who were expected to win Group A) wanted to work out who their opponent would be in the Round of 16, they would have needed to accurately predict that the four best third place getters would come from Groups B, D, E & F and that Uruguay would finish third in Group E. [And if they could have done that, they should have given up on playing football and taken up professional gambling!]

    Compare the 2002 World Cup - England and Argentina are both in Group F and they both know that they'll play a Group A team if they make the Round of 16. They also know that France is likely to head Group A, so you'd expect that England and Argentina wouldn't want to settle for second place and face the defending champion that early in the competition.

    You can see that the incorporation of third place getters made the draw quite messy and unpredictable. Now unpredictability is not necessarily a bad thing but, in retrospect, it seemed that all this arrangement did was inspire teams to just worry about getting through their group and then just hope for the best in the knockout draw.

    Surprisingly, West Germany, normally such a master at scheming its path, was arguably the most sparkling team in the group stage. The Germans looked red-hot in their opening match - a 4-1 romp over a far from negligible opponent in Yugoslavia. They followed up with a 5-1 win over the United Arab Emirates and only an injury time equaliser by Colombia in the Germans' final group game denied them a 100% record in the First Round.

    Unfortunately, West Germany was more the exception than the rule.

    Group F was a classic example of the kind of attitude this format inspired. England, the Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands and Egypt had all drawn their first two matches and all of them had scored once and conceded once. All sorts of records could have been created here if England hadn't defeated Egypt 1-0 in its final group match. As the news of England's lead filtered through to the Dutch and Irish players (who were level at 1-1 with around 20 minutes remaining), they became increasingly happy to make no effort to win as they knew a draw would enable them both to advance either in second or third place. Lots were used to decide that Ireland finished second in the group and the Netherlands finished third!

    For the second consecutive World Cup, the Uruguayans had the worst record of any team that made it through to the Second Round and even that was after an undeserved late winner in their final group match against South Korea. Argentina and Colombia also got through from third place.

    In another parallel to 1986, three of the four teams that advanced to the knockout phase from third place went out in the Round of 16. But Argentina, which finished behind Cameroon and Romania in Group B, went all the way to the Final. The defending champion was the clear underdog going into its Round of 16 match with Brazil. But Brazil simply couldn't score despite dominating most of the game and, with around 10 minutes left, Diego Maradona supplied Claudio Caniggia who did find the back of the net.

    From there, Argentina became the shoot-out king. Its quarter-final against Yugoslavia was goalless after 120 minutes (despite the Yugoslavs having a player sent off after just half an hour!) and then the Argentineans drew 1-1 in their semi-final against Italy. On both occasions, they advanced on penalties. Argentina remains the only team to ever participate in (and win) two penalty shoot-outs in the same edition of the World Cup finals. Forgive me for hoping that no one equals or breaks that record at Korea/Japan.

    There were two other shoot-outs. In the Round of 16, the Republic of Ireland needed spot kicks to advance at the expense of Romania and my heart was truly broken when England lost on penalties after a titanic semi-final with West Germany finished level at 1-1. I suppose it was going to come out sooner or later - I'm a mad Nottingham Forest fan; the then Forest captain, Stuart Pearce, was my hero; his penalty rebounded off the body of West Germany's goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner; and out went England.

    So it was West Germany and Argentina in the Final for the second consecutive World Cup but anyone hoping for a match that reached the heights of the 1986 decider would be sadly disappointed. The Germans had stuttered slightly after such a fine start to the tournament but they were, without question, more deserving winners than the Argentineans would have been. As if to underscore the poor quality of football at Italia '90, the match was terrible and decided by a dubious, late penalty awarded to West Germany.

USA 1994 (Group-knockout)

    After the 1990 edition, FIFA went into a complete tailspin and took the attitude that a poor World Cup meant that there was obviously something wrong with the sport. We heard all kinds of stupid suggestions - enlarging the goals; "kick-ins" instead of throw-ins; reducing the number of players; counting corners to decide drawn matches; abolishing (or substantially altering) the offside rule; etc. The list was almost endless and there were trials for a few of these suggested changes.

    Fortunately, virtually all of these ridiculous ideas were thrown out. The offside rule was slightly modified - now a forward is onside when he is level with the last defender whereas this had previously not been the case. It was a small alteration and not a bad one.

    And we got the new back pass rule which forbade a goalkeeper from handling the ball if it had been deliberately passed by a team mate (by foot). Years later, I'm still quite sceptical about whether this change has made much of a difference.

    The main problem, as you surely know I'm going to say, was the tournament's format. Yes, it wasn't the whole problem but how could anyone expect much quality football when it was hard not to qualify for the knockout stage? Of the 52 matches played at Italia '90, 36 were group matches - just over two thirds. If the group stage is rubbish (and it was), the knockout matches are going to have to do an awful lot to salvage perceptions of the overall quality of the World Cup. And there actually were some fine matches in the knockout phase of Italia '90. If you remember them, think back to: Yugoslavia-Spain; Argentina-Brazil; West Germany-Netherlands; Argentina-Italy; and England's matches against Belgium, Cameroon and West Germany. Were they that bad? Surely not.

    Unfortunately the Final was a disaster but, as USA '94 would show, that can be forgiven if the rest of the competition pleases.

    The one format change brought in for 1994 was long overdue - 3 points for a win. It had been successful in the English League for over a decade but other countries had been surprisingly slow to adopt it. Peter Goldstein has pointed out that, in World Cup groups, the impact of 3 points for a win is limited (because there aren't enough games for it to make much difference). This is substantially correct but it's still worth having. When proceedings in a group commence, teams just don't know if the extra point might come in handy. A team could go into its last group match with 3 points from a win and a loss and face a team with 2 points from 2 draws - the bonus point provides an advantage irrespective of goal difference. And, as Brazil and Nigeria showed in 1998, 3 points for a win gives teams the opportunity to wrap up victory in a group after their second match. With 2 points for a win, that's not possible.

    This would, thankfully, be the last World Cup which allowed third place getters through to the knockout round and, once again, three third place getters went out in the Round of 16 while the other one made the Final.

    That "other one" was Italy. Incredibly, Italy had the worst record of any team entering the knockout stage. Make no mistake. If a league table of the 16 surviving teams was made after the completion of the group stage, the Italians would have been placed 16th. This, however, was after they escaped from the extraordinary Group E where all four teams had a win, a draw, a loss and an even goal difference. Mexico won the group because it scored 3 goals. The Republic of Ireland and Italy had both scored 2 goals but the Irish won second place on match result as they had beaten the Italians. Poor Norway finished bottom of the group because it had only scored one goal.

    Surprisingly, two other third placed teams had won two of their three group matches. In Group D, Nigeria, Bulgaria and Argentina each had two wins and a loss. Nigeria won the group on goal difference and Bulgaria grabbed second spot over Argentina on match result - just as the Irish did over Italy.

    And in Group F, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Belgium each had two wins. This time the group was actually won (by the Netherlands) on match result (over Saudi Arabia). All three teams had a goal difference of +1 but the Belgians were relegated to third because they had only scored twice while the Dutch and the Saudis each scored 4.

    The last of the third placed teams that survived was the host, the United States. They, along with Argentina and Belgium, didn't make it past the first knockout round.

    The group stage had been an improvement from the corresponding phase four years earlier. (Who knows? Maybe 3 points for a win had something to do with that.) And hopes were high that the Italia '90 record of four penalty shoot-outs would not be equalled. It wasn't but, sadly, one of the tournament's three shoot-outs was in the Final.

    The first shoot-out came in the Round of 16 after Mexico and Bulgaria finished level at 1-1. The Bulgarians won that one. Sweden knocked Romania out on penalties in a quarter-final which came to life in the last 15 minutes of normal time. Until then, the match had been goalless - by the end of extra time, the score was 2-2 with both teams having been within minutes of victory (Sweden in normal time and Romania in extra time).

    And now we come to the Brazil-Italy Final. Italy had led a charmed life throughout the competition and, in the knockout phase, that was largely due to divine inspiration - a divine ponytail to be precise. Roberto Baggio had saved the Italians in the Round of 16 when they were within minutes of elimination at the hands of Nigeria. And after equalising in normal time, he converted a penalty in extra time and the African champions were on their way home. In Italy's quarter-final against Spain, Roby Baggio popped up with a late winner after the Spaniards had seemed the more likely to score. And he scored twice more in the semi, against Bulgaria, reviving memories of how Paolo Rossi had inspired the Italians after a similarly poor start in the 1982 edition.

    Brazil had looked a bit more like Finalists from the outset and there was great anticipation for this decisive meeting of World Cup giants. But 120 minutes couldn't produce a goal in a highly disappointing match. Provision for a replay, if the Final was level after extra time, had been shelved long ago so penalties it was and, irony of ironies, Roberto Baggio missed the decisive spot kick and Brazil won the World Cup for the fourth time.

    It had been a far better tournament than 1990 so what went wrong in the Final? I can only put it down to cautious tactics and player exhaustion. Before the Final, the latter of those two factors had already been evident. USA '94 was yet another World Cup of stifling heat and daft travel arrangements. Brazil had played in: San Francisco twice, then Detroit, then San Francisco again, then Dallas, then Los Angeles before meeting Italy (in LA again) in the Final. Italy's route had been: New York (twice), then Washington DC, then Boston (twice), then New York (again) before the long flight to LA and the big change of time zone that went with it. I'll spare you a geography lesson; you can look at a map if you want to work out how many frequent flyer points the teams earned.

France 1998 (Group-knockout)

    I have to admit to being delighted when I heard of the decision to expand the 1998 World Cup finals to 32 teams. There is a strong argument that 32 teams are too many. I won't get into that debate now - it's another column - but I will say this: the finals can really only have 32 teams or 16. These are trouble free numbers. Forget number 24 - it's evil and should be banned.

    I didn't have to be told what the format for France '98 was going to be. It was obvious and it was beautiful. Eight groups of four; the top two advancing from each; and 16 teams in the knockout stage. In the Round of 16, each group winner plays a runner-up. No more third place getters advancing to the knockout phase. Wonderful!

    And this format ensured that teams from the same group went to opposite sides of the draw in the second phase. In the four previous editions, this hadn't always been the case thanks to the complications which arose from that dastardly number that dare not speak its name. [Remember that in 1982, Italy and Poland played off in a semi despite the fact that they were in the same first phase group. Ditto Brazil and Sweden in 1994.]

    Of course, Messrs Havelange and Blatter were probably only worried about the revenue from the extra 12 matches and finding more places for countries in CAF/AFC/CONCACAF. But, hey, we got a sane (and simple) format as a result. Rejoice!

    These changes meant that the finals comprised a massive 64 matches. And now, 48 of them were in the group phase. It was vital that the group phase didn't disappoint - and it didn't. Why? Because most teams just couldn't coast through it.

    With the third place safety net removed, most of the groups were quite competitive. The only two groups that weren't were Group F (Germany/Yugoslavia/Iran/USA) and Group H (Argentina/Croatia/Jamaica/Japan). In both cases, the first two teams advanced relatively easily. It must be said, however, that although Iran and the USA lost their matches to Germany and Yugoslavia, they were hardly whipping boys. For their part, Germany and Yugoslavia played an excellent match against each other. Group leadership was at stake and, under the France '98 system, this was more important than in any tournament since 1970. [Note that the 1998 Final was the first in 28 years where both competing teams were first phase group winners.]

    The knockout phase featured another change - the introduction of the "golden goal" which (in case you come from another planet) means that the first team to score in extra time wins the match. It's an attempt to cut down on penalty shoot-outs but the jury is still out on its value. And, as I mentioned over 5,000 words ago, UEFA has recently dispensed with it.

    I can't help feeling that, in "golden goal" extra time, teams are often far more desperate not to concede the golden goal than they are to score it. France 98 provides some supporting evidence. Of the four matches in the knockout section that went to extra time, only one golden goal was scored. Laurent Blanc was the man that wrote himself into history as France's Round of 16 match with Paraguay was decided, in the second period of extra time, by his strike. The other Round of 16 match that went to extra time was Argentina-England but there was no golden goal there and Argentina won the shoot-out.

    Along with England, Italy is another country which is a world champion at losing penalty shoot-outs. Given that my parents are Italian and that I'm quite an England fan, you can imagine that, between them, they've caused plenty of grief with their penalty kick failures! True to form, Italy and France played 120 goalless minutes in their quarter-final and in the shoot-out ... ahhh, you know.

    Penalties were also needed in a semi-final between Brazil and, another shoot-out tragic, the Netherlands. Again, you know.

    So to the Final which, for the first time, paired the holders with the hosts. It wasn't a great match but at least we got goals as France won 3-0. Before that episode, it had been 12 years since Argentina's Jorge Burruchaga had scored the last goal in open play in a World Cup Final.

Korea/Japan 2002 (Group-knockout)

    Now you'd think that FIFA wouldn't stuff around with the format with most of the serious anomalies corrected in 1998. But it has.

    I have written about the change for 2002 at length in The World Cup's "Super Bowl" Final and, to cut a long story short, it is a move to a conference style system. The two teams that advance from a group will stay in the same half of the knockout draw; and one Finalist must come from either Group A, C, F or H while the other must come from Group B, D, E or G. Consequently, the Final cannot be between any two of the 32 teams competing.

    It's a stupid change and one that, I'm certain, was made to ensure that the chance of the co-hosts playing against each other is close to nil. Indeed, this format has made it easier to keep Japan in Japan and South Korea in South Korea. If I am right about the motives of FIFA/Japan/Korea, expect that the conference system will be dumped for Germany 2006 and the France '98 format will be returned.

    At the conclusion of Korea/Japan, I may write an addendum to this series of articles so we can look back at the 2002 tournament and discuss a few changes which could further improve the World Cup finals. The current arrangements may be better than many of the past but there are still a couple of weaknesses.

    "A history of crazy formats" has been a series which grew to a size that I hadn't anticipated when I commenced. Nonetheless, it has been a lot of fun to research and write and I hope you enjoyed it.



Info on how the World Cup was founded and about the trophy as well.
Detailed info on every match in every tournament.
Interesting columns about the past, present and future of the World Cup.
Every nation with appearances in the World Cup. Detailed info on every country.
Player profiles 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.
Every mascot since it was introduced in 1966.
Test your knowledge about the WC. Three different levels. No prizes, just for fun.
Rankings of lots of stuff. For instance Best Goals, Best Players and Best Matches.
Our collection of links to other soccer sites with World Cup connection.
Some banners and buttons for you to link to us if you want.
A little information on who keeps this site available.
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Copyrights © 1998- - This website is created and maintained by Jan Alsos. It is an unofficial website not affiliated or connected in any way to FIFA. All rights reserved.