There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth after the U.S. conceded a last-second equalizer on Sunday to gift Portugal a 2-2 draw. But as I and others noted after the game, the U.S. is actually in very good position to advance to the knockout round heading into its final group game against Germany.
Here are the current Group G standings, and here are the scenarios that would see America through. Many of them involve tiebreakers on goal differential and total goals scored that the U.S. is in good position to win.
- If the U.S. beats Germany, then the U.S. advances top of the group. Every other scenario has the Americans going through as the second-place team in Group G, behind Germany.
- If the U.S. draws with Germany, then the U.S. advances.
- If the U.S. loses to Germany and Ghana and Portugal finish in a draw, then the U.S. advances.
- If the U.S. loses to Germany and Portugal beats Ghana by a combined margin of less than five goals, then the U.S. advances on goal differential. (For example, if Germany beats the U.S. 2-0 and Portugal beats Ghana 2-0, the U.S. would still go through.)
- If the U.S. loses to Germany and Portugal beats Ghana by a combined margin of exactly five goals, the U.S. advances on total goals scored if it scores the same number of goals or one fewer goal than Portugal does on Thursday. (This tiebreaker could be invoked if, for example, the U.S. loses 4-1 and Portugal wins 2-0.)
- If the U.S. loses to Germany by one goal and Ghana beats Portugal by one goal, the U.S. advances on total goals scored if it scores the same number of goals or one fewer goal than Ghana does on Thursday. (If Germany beats the U.S. 1-0 and Ghana beats Portugal 1-0, the U.S. advances on the third tiebreaker due to its head-to-head victory against Ghana.)
- If the U.S. loses to Germany and Portugal beats Ghana by a combined margin of exactly five goals and the U.S. scores exactly two fewer goals than Portugal does on Thursday, then some bureaucrat will draw lots to determine who advances. The U.S. advances if that bureaucrat draws the U.S. instead of Portugal.
And if anything else happens, the U.S. is cooked. Simple enough, right?
The one scenario, though, that has obsessed fans and media is the idea that Germany and the U.S. might play for a mutually beneficial draw, one that sees the Germans win the group and the Americans finish second. Listening to ESPN commentary or the chatter of some fans, you would think our chant should be, “I believe that we will collude to draw thanks to our coach, who happens to be a German national, don’t you know.”
While the collusion scenario seems far-fetched and is being denied vigorously by U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann, there is precedent for these sorts of shenanigans. The most famous example involved Germany. It happened at the 1982 World Cup when Austria and West Germany went into the game knowing that a 1-0 result for the Germans would send both teams through at the expense of Algeria. After Germany scored just 10 minutes in, both sides seemed to play the rest of the game to maintain that result.
The incident is alternatively known as the “Nonaggression Pact of Gijón,” or “El Anschluss,” or simply “the Disgrace of Gijón” depending on who you ask. It’s considered one of the bleakest moments in World Cup sportsmanship, and led FIFA to change the World Cup schedule so that the final group games are played simultaneously.
But even since the rules were changed, there have been occasions where both sides were able to play for a mutually beneficial result, known in Italian as biscotto. (Of course the Italians have a word for this.) In 1990, after Ireland scored an equalizer in the 71st minute of its World Cup match against the Netherlands, that 1-1 result was enough to send both teams through. After that tally, the pace of the game appeared to slow down significantly.
What would happen if Germany and the U.S. decided to play for a tie? Actual collusion to determine the result seems like the definition of match-fixing, an act that is against FIFA rules and punishable by life bans. In terms of actual legality, a 2013 UN report on match-fixing says that “Brazilian legislation seems to provide limited possibilities to fight match-fixing per se. There is no special criminal offence incriminating this conduct.” So if Klinsy and Jogi were to come to a special vereinbarung in advance of the match and were caught, they at least probably wouldn’t spend any time in a Recife slammer.
But the suggestion that there would be outright collusion is a bit ridiculous. Even “El Anschluss”—known as such because it was compared to the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938—was not technically match-fixing. (Or if it was, it was never proven as such.)
Without discussing the gambit beforehand, both sides could set out to play for a draw on Thursday, playing at a slower pace than normal, and retreating into a defensive shell rather than bombing forward. But such a strategy wouldn’t suit either side as much as winning would. The second-place finisher will likely face a very tough-looking Belgium, while the group winner faces whichever team crawls into second place in a wretched Group H—either Algeria, Russia, or South Korea.
And as Raf Noboa y Rivera explains on Deadspin’s Screamer blog, there are other reasons that the Germans and Americans won’t lay down. The Germans, for one, don’t look back at that 1982 match with Austria with any amount of pride. But perhaps more important are the personal stakes of this game for German coach Joachim Löw (who was Klinsmann’s assistant with the German national team), Klinsmann’s ex-players, Klinsmann himself, and the United States’ five German-Americans. I can’t imagine any of these people sitting back and accepting a draw.
What’s far more likely than any outright collusion is an Ireland-Netherlands situation. Say it’s late in the second half, both teams are tied, both teams are tired, and both teams know that the current result would be good enough. If Germany and the U.S. decide to step off the gas in the 85th minute or thereabouts, that wouldn’t be match-fixing. That would just be common sense.