I realize this might be a little late, but I’m going to take the opportunity today to make the whole group stage rules crystal clear for everyone out there. I apologize if you’ve been confused thus far, but at least you can makes sense of everything as we approach the end of group stage and all of these rules really start to matter. I’ve fielded a lot of questions from non-soccer-watching friends and family in the last few days about how the World Cup works, what a tie means, what the U.S. has to do to advance, etc. When people say they don’t understand how the World Cup works, what they really mean is they don’t understand how the group stage works. Once we get to the knockout round (or the Round of 16 as it’s often called) the World Cup is just like any other American tournament. It’s a single-elimination tournament without ties (tie games advance to a 30 minute golden goal period and then penalty kicks).
Here’s the breakdown on the group stage. There are eight groups with 4 teams in each group. During the group stage, each team plays the other three teams in their group one time, for a total of 12 games for each group. A win earns a team three points, a tie earns them one point, and a loss gets you no points, plus an early bedtime with no groupie hookups that night. So, after each team has played every other team, the two teams from each group with the most points advance to the knockout stage. If two teams have the same number of points, the tiebreaker is goal differential. That’s simply the number of goals they scored in the group stage minus the number of goals that were scored against them in the first stage. If that’s also equal, then it’s simply whichever team scored more goals. If they’re still tied, then they advance whichever team had a longer flight to get there (I made that one up by the way).
So, let’s look at the Americans’ group for a case study. In their first match, the U.S. tied England 1-1. In their second match, they tied Slovenia 2-2 (at least that’s the official score, we all know they really won with Maurice Edu’s goal). Meanwhile, England also tied their first two games. Slovenia defeated Algeria in their first match before tying the U.S. Algeria, of course, lost to Slovenia and then tied England. So…Slovenia has 4 pts, England and America have 2 pts, and Algeria has 1 pt. Make sense?
Tomorrow, after Group H plays their second round of games, I’m going to give a breakdown of each group so far, give you all the scenarios, and tell you the most likely outcome after the final round of group games.
As for today’s games, Italy’s struggles continued, New Zealand’s dream continued, and South America’s dominance continued.
In the early game, Paraguay improved on its first match, a somewhat disappointing draw with New Zealand, by taking down Slovakia 2-0. Paraguay’s defense has been strong throughout qualifying, but they’ve often struggled to score goals. Enrique Vera gave Paraguay the early lead with a goal in the 27th minute. Vera’s goal was a one touch, well-placed shot from the top of the 18 and resulted from a nice through ball from Paulo Da Silva. Paraguay’s defense then took care of business before Cristian Riveros added a late goal in the 86th minute to seal the win.
Less than a week after securing their first point ever, the Kiwis of New Zealand repeated the feat, accomplishing the unthinkable by securing a 1-1 draw against Italy. Just as in their first games, New Zealand took an early lead, while Italy also repeated the script from their first match by falling behind again. Shane Smeltz put New Zealand ahead with a goal in the seventh minute that resulted from a New Zealand free kick. Smeltz found space behind the Italian defense, and when the ball found its way through he directed it past backup keeper Federico Marchetti (on for the injured Gianluigi Buffon). Italy struck back 22 minutes later with a penalty kick goal by Vincenzo Iaquinta, after the referee called a foul for a jersey tug that brought down Danielle De Rossi in the box. If Italy thought they were back on their way to victory, though, they were mistaken, as they only threatened New Zealand’s goal a couple of more times the rest of the game. The Kiwis actually came very close to stealing the win with a late chance by Chris Wood.
The day’s final game offered up a tantalizing match between Ivory Coast and Brazil. However, as has been the case so often this World Cup, an African side looked very weak while the South American side dominated. Brazil took the lead on a Luis Fabiano goal in the 25th minute that was helped by some spotty Ivory Coast defending. Kaka managed to slip a through ball to Fabiano despite a crowd of Ivory Coast defenders hovering, and the pass sprung Fabiano in with a clear look at goal. Brazil only gained momentum from there, with Fabiano scoring another goal with a nifty solo effort in the 50th minute (despite what may have been a Fabiano handball). Elano tacked on another in the 62nd minute before Didier Drogba managed to steal a late consolation goal for Ivory Coast. As with many of the African teams, Ivory Coast showed some speed and power in their buildup but lacked vision in the final third while showing little creativity. There was a slight downside to the match for the Brazilians as Elano was taken off with an injury midway through the second half. Additionally, their primary playmaker Kaka was sent off with a late red card following what can only be labeled as a despicable dive by an Ivory Coast Kadar Keita. As the two exchanged words, a nudge by Kaka into the chest of Keita left Keita apparently incapacitated on the ground holding his head in agony. A pretty bad decision by the referee but one that won’t hurt Brazil too terribly since they’re already through to the next round.