Goal difference or head-to-head? How are the World Cup groups decided?


The first round of World Cup group stage fixtures are behind us and the mouth-watering prospect of the knockouts is edging ever closer.

Despite having several games still to be played in every group, it has become clear which teams are likely to cruise into the last 16 and which teams still have it all to do.

For the latter, it is often a case of needing other results to go their way as well as dealing with their own business.

There will, almost certainly, be a few teams that finish the group stage on the same amount of points as their opponents which begs the question: Is goal difference the deciding factor or does head-to-head record take precedence?

The Athletic explains how it all works below.

Will goal difference or head-to-head be used to separate teams on the same amount of points?

Given there are only three games for each team in the group stage, there is a great likelihood that some of the teams in more than one of the groups will finish on equal points.

In Russia four years ago, there were three groups where that was the case while two groups had the same issue in Brazil in 2014.

In the first instance, teams who have the same amount of points after the three matches will be separated, firstly, by goal difference. The team with the greater goal difference will finish above the teamer with the lesser goal difference. Nice and easy.

If the goal difference is the same for both teams, goals scored is the deciding factor. The team that has scored more goals in the three games will finish higher than the team who has scored fewer. Again, nice and easy.

Then, will teams’ head-to-head records be used?

Yes. If both goal difference and goals scored is the same, which wouldn’t be totally surprising, then head-to-head record makes the decision.

Given there are only three games, there is every chance that the team tied on points played out a draw in their meeting so that too could fail to split the teams.

However, if it was three teams tied on points rather than two, that would certainly help.

If the three teams couldn’t be separated purely on points in the matches played against each other then goal difference from the games played between the tied teams would be the deciding factor.

I’ll give an example as I’m aware that this is starting to get quite confusing; if Senegal, Ecuador and the Netherlands were to all finish on six points in Group A, the group would essentially become a three-team group. The results against Qatar — who would be eliminated with zero points in this instance — would be discounted.

Then, goal difference (and then goals scored if still tied) from the matches involving only the three tied teams would decide which two teams progress to the last 16.

What is the next decider for tied teams?

If qualification still has not been decided after a look at the head-to-head records, fair play comes into the equation and the more disciplined team — the team with fewer discipline points — would progress.

The points are calculated as follows:

  • Yellow card – One point
  • Indirect red card (two yellow cards) – Three points
  • Direct red card – Four points
  • Yellow card then direct red card – Five points

If teams still cannot be separated after fair play points, drawing of lots is the only remaining option. That would bring a number of questions from supporters if that were to be the defining factor but, given the plethora of alternatives before that, there will surely be at least one better way to determine a winner.

(Photo: Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images)


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