For eight consecutive days, the soccer smorgasbord that is the World Cup has unspooled at regular intervals, each match staggered to bestow it maximum importance, a full 90 minutes of splendor — plus an eon of stoppage time — on the global stage without intrusion from other games.
Even if upsets abounded, a certain tidiness to the proceedings still reigned: On most of those eight days, there were four games, scheduled three hours apart, one after another after another. It was glorious, satisfying and, for those of us who crave order, rather life-affirming.
Since Tuesday, that structure is on a brief hiatus, with each group holding its final two games simultaneously.
On Thursday in Group F, Croatia will kick off against Belgium at the same time that Canada faces Morocco. After a break, Japan plays Spain in Group E, which is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Eastern, precisely when Costa Rica’s matchup with Germany begins.
The change in schedule creates the closest conditions to competitive balance and fair play, assuring that teams do not know the result required to reach the knockout stage before they take the field. It discourages teams from improving pathways in the bracket by influencing results with such tactics as manipulating goal differential or not playing to win. It also inhibits match fixing.
The policy dates to a moment so embarrassing for international soccer — which has had one or two or nine — that it came to merit a shorthand of sorts: the Disgrace of Gijón. Or, in Germany, Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (the nonaggression pact of Gijón).
At the 1982 World Cup in Spain, heading into their final match in group play, West Germany and Austria realized that a victory for West Germany by one or two goals would enable both teams to progress — and thus eliminate upstart Algeria, which, after finishing group play a day earlier, needed an Austria win or draw to move on.
In the 11th minute, Horst Hrubesch scored for West Germany. Then, torpidity and languor and boredom and yawn. For the rest of the match, George Vecsey wrote in The New York Times, “West Germany made more kicks backward than forward.” The arrangement secured both teams’ passage.
In his book about the rise of African soccer, “Feet of the Chameleon,” Ian Hawkey wrote that Algeria fans waved bank notes at the players, and that German television called it “the most shameful day in the history of our Football Federation.”
Algeria complained to FIFA, but no punishment would be levied. Instead, FIFA responded by amending its rules: Starting with the 1986 World Cup, all final matches in a group would be held concurrently. So, now they are.
Enjoy the mayhem. Embrace the absurdity.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.