23 June 2010

Soccer Scandals

If you're following the World Cup, you may have noticed that today, and tomorrow, several critical matches are scheduled for the exact same time. That's a bit of a head-scratcher: after all, you only get so many World Cup matches. Why not let us see all of them - and of course benefit from the increased ad revenue?

You're going to need a bit of soccer background here.

The World Cup plays in two stages: a seeded tournament, in which the top two teams (of four) in each group advance, and a sudden death elimination tournament. We're nearing the end of stage 1. Each team in the group plays the other once - this year, the USA plays Slovenia, England, and Algeria. You get three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss. At the moment, this group is completely up in the air. Basically, whichever teams win tomorrow will advance, except Algeria, which will need a little outside help. When points are equal (for instance, two teams both have three points), the tie breaker is goals scored.

Right, you're saying. That makes it even dumber that the Slovenia-England happens at the same time as USA-Algeria. I can't watch the other game I care about because the game I care about is on!

Well, there's a reason for it.

In 1983, another group was in a near lock. Algeria had already defeated Chile, and was waiting for West Germany to play Austria. If Germany won and scored more than three goals, Germany and Algeria would advance. If Germany and Austria drew, or if Germany lost, then Austria and Algeria would advance. And the goals-scored tiebreaker system left one weird loophole in the middle. If Germany won and scored precisely one or two goals, both Germany and Austria would advance, leaving Algeria out.

Would you be shocked to find out that the final score was Germany 1, Austria 0?

And this wasn't even subtle: Germany scored 10 minutes in, and the teams just futzed around for another 80 minutes. The Algerians were incensed; German and Austrian fans were incensed (with one fan reportedly burning his own German flag); and the game-watching general public were incensed. FIFA (that's the ruling body for the World Cup) decided to allow the game to stand, but in all subsequent World Cups, the final games have been played simultaneously to avoid this sort of "gentleman's agreement" (which, to my historian's amusement, appears to be nicknamed the "non-aggression pact.")

So tomorrow, if you are watching and grumbling about changing channels to check both scores, look at it this way: At least if Algeria gets eliminated this year, it will have happened honestly.

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