When the referee blew the final whistle in the game between Poland and Argentina, the Polish players were still unsure if they were qualifying or not, given the Mexico-Saudi Arabia game was ongoing. At one stage, Poland and Mexico were only separated by the number of yellow cards they had collected in the group stage — Poland had five compared to Mexico’s seven — and coach Michniewicz was desperately urging his team to not give away fouls in the final minutes.
A stoppage-time goal by Saudi Arabia meant their match finished 2-1 in favor of Mexico at Lusail Stadium, whose goal difference was inferior by one to Poland.
Hence, Poland, despite losing to Argentina, ended up as the happier side on the night because the team went through as the group’s second-place team — on goal difference ahead of Mexico.
Argentina’s victory meant goal difference came into play — and Mexico didn’t have enough of them.
As the final round of group-stage matches gets underway later on Tuesday, there could be a scenario where two or more teams finish level on points. In such a scenario, FIFA’s rules are well laid out.
According to the governing body’s guidelines for the World Cup, there are various criteria to determine which team will progress into the knockout rounds.
1. Points: The first way is the team with the highest number of points. Each nation gets three points for a win, one point for a draw and zero points for a defeat. In the event of two or more teams end the group stage with the same points, then the authorities will look at the second rule, which is the goal difference.
2. Goal difference: If the teams are level on points, the one with a superior goal difference – the total of goals scored minus goals conceded – will go through. The last team to face the consequences was Portugal in 2014 when they finished behind the US for second place in their group.
If nothing separates the teams after rules 1 and 2, the third criterion will be looked at.
3. Goals scored: This rule was most famously enforced in 1982, when Italy and Cameroon were locked on points and goal difference, but the European side advanced because they had scored one more goal. Italy went on to win that World Cup. Another memorable instance was in 1994, when Mexico, Ireland, Italy and Norway finished with the same number of points (4 each) and goal difference (0). Mexico won that group because they scored more goals (3) than the rest.
4. Head-to-head: If the teams are tied after the first three rules, the next step will be to look at the points total in the head-to-head matches between the teams involved. Three things are looked at here (in this order): points won in head-to-head matches, goal difference and goals scored. The team with a superior record will advance.
5. Fair play record: If the teams still can’t be separated, then the fair play record is looked at. Each team is given a ‘conduct score’, wherein a point is deducted for each yellow card they receive, two points for a red card received after two bookings and four points for a straight red. The team with a lower score progresses into the knockout round. At the 2018 World Cup, Japan edged out Senegal based on this rule. The two teams could not be separated on any of the above criteria. Japan’s fair play score of -4 was better than Senegal’s, who tallied -6.
6. Draw of lots: The last way to determine who progresses is by luck of the draw. No team has been axed from the World Cup by this method so far.