The World Cup is about winning, but what exactly?
In theory, it’s about winning matches. Win all your matches and you’ll win the World Cup. Simple. But that’s not the only way. A team just needs to escape its group then survive all of its knockout matches to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy. Seeding normally makes this de minimis strategy compatible with the idea that winning is a necessary good. A sequence of upsets, however, can disrupt this equilibrium. At the point where the runner up in a group will face an easier draw, what’s the point of trying to win your group?
A perfect storm is brewing at the 2018 World Cup that threatens to turn this thought experiment into a serious question. After a loss to Mexico and a last-ditch win against Sweden, Germany could easily enter the round of 16 as a runner-up. Brazil, while shaky, remains in the driver’s seat to advance as its group’s winner. Should both of those things come to pass, things could quickly devolve. The winner of Belgium and England’s group would be on track to face the winner of a Brazil-Germany match in its quarterfinal. The runner-up, meanwhile, would be looking at a quarterfinal against the winner of Mexico versus Switzerland or Serbia.
By the by, Belgium and England are both through to the next round and will meet on Thursday in Group G’s last game.
Barring a grievous string of injuries or the outbreak of war, Belgium and England would both be favoured against any of their possible opponents in the round of sixteen. Belgium (85.4) and England (83.7) are sixth and seventh, respectively, in FiveThirtyEight’s World Cup SPI ratings, which serve as an adequate measure of team strength. Colombia, which has the highest SPI rating (80.5) of their possible challengers, is notably less strong. All things being equal, one might rather face Senegal, or Japan than Colombia, but the worst-case scenario wouldn’t be that bad. As a runner-up, you can hardly ask for better than being favoured in a knockout round.
Something much, much better is on offer in this scenario. The gap between the trajectory of Group G’s winner and that its of runner-up, as measured by SPI, would only grow more stark in the quarterfinals. The group’s winner would be a significant underdog against either Brazil (92.8) or Germany (90.6), two of just three teams with ratings in the 90s. The runner-up, on the other hand, would be in line to face one of three teams with SPI ratings between 78.1 and 73.8. A round of 16 match in which your team is favoured, albeit not by as much as it could have been, is a very small price to pay for a possible quarterfinal where your team has a significant edge.
That small price might not even have to be paid. Colombia lost its opening group match to Japan and incurred the added strain of playing 85 minutes with just ten men. Despite a comfortable win against Poland, it may not win its group. It’s therefore plausible that the runner-up of England and Belgium’s group could have an easier round of 16 pairing before being comically favoured in its quarterfinal instead of facing the matchup from hell.
Team strength is obviously not destiny. The strongest team, by SPI or any other metric, does not always win. The case for England or Belgium losing on purpose is indeed based on that reality; Germany losing to an inferior Mexican side was the inciting incident for this whole sequence. When thinking about the opportunities presented by different parts of the World Cup bracket, it’s at least worth considering that teams aren’t as strong or as weak as their pre-tournament projections suggested. For that reason, targeting the slightest of edges in a future pairing wouldn’t justify the practical and reputational risks of losing on purpose.
The difference between the prospects for Group G’s two survivors is hardly marginal. Even if measures of team strength overstated Germany and Brazil’s superiority over England and Belgium and their superiority over Mexico, Switzerland, and Serbia, you’d be hard pressed to explain away the majority of these differences after just two matches. The truth lies somewhere between the group stage’s piddling sample size and broader measures of team quality, albeit closer to the latter. The case for not tanking would effectively require you to believe that it’s smarter to take your chances against a slightly-worse-than-advertised Brazil and Germany than better-than-expected versions of Switzerland, Serbia, or Mexico. Good luck with that. For England and Belgium, the smart move is still to lose that final group match.
The partial equilibrium view of this World Cup, with its exclusive focus on the Belgium-England match, assumes other teams wouldn’t use their final group matches to escape the bracket’s hellish section. If they could also avoid facing a murderer’s row on the way to the semifinals, other teams might also consider working the bracket to their advantage. The different impediments teams from other groups face, however, reveal the strange confluence of events needed to make tanking a viable option. Collectively, they may also explain why tanking has not been a major issue at past tournaments.
The random sequencing of groups and matches works against most prospective tankers. Russia and Uruguay faced one another in Group A’s final match on Monday having already qualified for the next round. After two rounds, they could each have potentially faced one of Spain, Portugal, and Iran. For Russia and Uruguay, the difference between facing Iran or an Iberian team could justify tanking. Moreover, they wouldn’t have had to worry about overshooting and finishing third since their group was already settled. But they kicked off four hours before Group B’s final matches. Kremlin jokes notwithstanding, they couldn’t know if they were targeting Iran or in all likelihood tanking just to face one of two superior teams anyhow. (In the end, Russia was trounced by Uruguay and Iran went out after drawing with Portugal.)
Brazil faces the opposite predicament. By the time its final match kicks off, Germany’s group will have been settled. If Die Mannschaft are runners up, Brazil might reasonably conclude that tanking in order to face either Belgium or England in the next round is a good idea. The exact matchup would be unknown, but one can argue that both options are significantly better than a match against Germany. After two rounds, Brazil’s group has three teams that could still advance. An attempt to finish second, but definitely not third, would leave the Seleção dependent on events in another match. (Ask USMNT fans what that feels like. I dare you.) That risk is a strong deterrent against tanking.
Belgium and England are perfectly positioned to decide whether or not tanking is a worthwhile strategy. The luck of the draw has them playing the penultimate group, so they’ll know if a Brazil-or-Germany quarterfinal remains on the table and be able to plan accordingly. Belgium and England also have the good fortune of sharing a group with Tunisia and Panama, two of the three weakest in the tournament per SPI. The sequencing of matches, moreover, means that England and Belgium have their group wrapped up before playing one another in their toughest matches. The order of the tournament’s groups and the matches within those groups are both of strategic importance. Unlike the different seeding tiers teams are drawn from, these factors are fundamentally random. Belgium and England just got lucky. If ever a team is going to target a side of a tournament’s bracket by losing on purpose with no uncertainty or risk of missing out on the next round, this is it.
Losing a football match is not usually a complicated task. It’s one of the few things even Tim Sherwood can be trusted to do. But losing a tournament match on purpose is trickier proposition. For one thing, if two teams have the same incentive to lose a match, they can’t just stand down and wait for their opponents to score. Actual tactics are involved. Even if a team gets those tactics right, it still cannot know how FIFA might react.
The sort of gamesmanship at issue here is distasteful but not clearly forbidden. It is conceptually different from match fixing insofar as there’s no collusion or benefit to another party. Sporting bodies nevertheless tend to oppose these hijinks. The NBA reportedly helped engineer strategic losing aficionado Sam Hinkie’s exit from Philadelphia. RIP The Process. After a favourite’s early loss skewed the bracket at the 2012 Olympics, multiple badminton pairs racked up comical faults to avoid the looming murderer’s row. It was rational, but undignified. Eight players were ultimately kicked out of the tournament. The Badminton World Federation cited them for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”
Football also frowns on these tactics. The Premier League fined Wolves in 2010 and Blackpool in 2011 for fielding weakened teams to maximize their chances in future fixtures. One might find succor in that rule subsequently being loosened, but the English Football League just introduced a similar measure. UEFA, meanwhile, has opposed players provoking suspensions at opportune times to have clean their slates before the Champions League gets tough. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos were fined for this in 2010 while Jose Mourinho received a two-match ban. Dani Carvajal served a one-match ban after wasting time to get that crucial yellow card in 2017. In all these cases, officials deemed a setback incurred in one match in order to improve a team’s overall chances in a competition as fundamentally anticompetitive. That’s not encouraging for Belgium and England.
FIFA could probably find some rule on its books to punish a team that lost to gain an edge. It is not, however, clear that it would dare expel prominent teams from the World Cup. The 1982 Disgrace of Gijón, which was distasteful but had an added whiff of collusion, went wholly unpunished. FIFA’s continued spinelessness is generally a safe bet. England and Belgium would still have to consider possible repercussions when deciding to throw their match. Purposely losing is an act of regulatory brinksmanship. Some sort of punishment after the tournament could be a fair price to pay for a much easier path to the final. Expulsion, which is even worse for a team’s chances than facing Brazil or Germany, would make the whole exercise counterproductive.
A team seeking to lose on purpose would therefore be loath to say as much. Roberto Martinez says Belgium will aim for first place, which is what he’d say whether or not it was true. Seeing as teams tend to rest their starters once they’ve qualified out of their group, FIFA would struggle to sanction England and Belgium for doing what many of its peers do. Starting the like Jamie Vardy and Michy Batshuayi, however, is not a guaranteed recipe for failure. (If only England had called up Joe Hart!) Getting players sent off would seem to be an obvious way of increasing a team’s chance of losing, but the suspensions would leave either side with a shortened bench in the next round. That may be a palatable risk against teams from Group H, but it’s a risk nonetheless. In the slightly longer term, yellow card totals don’t reset until the semifinals. Throwing a match without comical own goals would likely alter Belgium and England’s tactical outlook in the rest of the tournament.
Accessing the easier side of the bracket was always going to come at a cost. Managing a tricky card situation is probably the lowest and most palatable price on offer. It’s also the safest strategy. England and Belgium go into their final match tied on points, goal differential and goals scored. This is another advantage teams that might want to target an easier pairing don’t usually have. If they draw their head-to-head match, the relevant tiebreaker would be fair play. Belgium currently has three players on yellows compared to England’s two. This is not an insurmountable gap. There’s no guarantee FIFA would look kindly upon such gamesmanship — the underlying act and intention remains the same — but drawing a match with lots of yellow cards is less aesthetically displeasing to many than losing on purpose and scoring own goals.
Few teams have ever stood to gain as much by throwing a World Cup group match. No two teams may have ever been in a better position to engineer their way onto the easy side of the elimination rounds. What, mind you, would be more England or Roberto Martinez than winning when trying to lose?
Header Image courtesy of the Press Association