FIFA is reportedly “near a consensus” that the first round of the 2026 World Cup should have the following format:
- 16 groups
- Each group has 3 teams
- The top two teams from each group progress
- Group matches will never end in a draw. Penalties will be used, if necessary, to ensure each match has a winner and a loser.
There are many possible objections to this plan, but I’m going to focus on only one here: the potential for a so-called biscotto. A biscotto is a match in which the two participating teams can collude on a certain result which will benefit both of them.
Example of a biscotto
Perhaps the most famous example of a biscotto was the so-called Disgrace of Gijón. Austria were playing West Germany in the final game of Group 2 of the 1982 World Cup. Before the game, the group table was:
(a win was worth two points; ties were broken by overall goal difference).
Because of the situation of the group, a win for West Germany by 1 or 2 goals would mean that both West Germany and Austria would qualify. And that is precisely what happened. To quote from Wikipedia:
After ten minutes of furious attack, West Germany succeeded in scoring through a goal by Horst Hrubesch. After the goal was scored, the team in possession of the ball often passed between themselves in their own half until an opposition player came into the vicinity of the ball, then the ball was then passed back to the goalkeeper. Isolated long balls were played into the opposition’s half, with little consequence. There were few tackles, and both sets of players flamboyantly missed with apparently no attempt at accuracy whenever they shot on goal. The only Austrian player who seemed to make any effort at livening the game up was Walter Schachner, though he had little success, while one of the few serious attempts on net was made by Wolfgang Dremmler of West Germany.
This performance was widely deplored by all observers. German ARD commentator Eberhard Stanjek at one point refused to comment on the game any longer. Austrian commentator Robert Seeger bemoaned the spectacle and actually requested that the viewers should switch off their television sets. George Vecsey, a New York Times journalist writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, stated that the teams “seemed to work in concert”, though added that proving such would be impossible. El Comercio, the local newspaper, printed the match report in its crime section.
Likewise, many spectators were not impressed and voiced their disgust with the players. Chants of “Fuera, fuera” (“Out, out”), “Argelia, Argelia” (“Algeria, Algeria”), and “Que se besen, que se besen” (“Let them kiss, let them kiss”) were screamed by the appalled Spanish crowd, while angry Algerian supporters waved banknotes at the players. The match was criticized even by the German and Austrian fans who had hoped for a hot rematch of the 1978 World Cup match, the so-called “Miracle of Córdoba”, in which Austria had beaten West Germany; one German fan burned the national flag in protest.
The final table was:
|West Germany (Progressed)||3||2||0||1||+3||4|
Note that this biscotto was possible only because Algeria had played its final game (a 3-2 win over Chile) the previous day. Because Austria and West Germany already knew Algeria’s precise final points and goal difference, they were able to safely agree (explicitly or implicitly) on a scoreline that would benefit both of them. Had Chile’s game with Algeria been played simultaneously, this would not have been possible: for example two late goals from Algeria would have eliminated Austria.
In all subsequent World Cups, the last two games of each group stage have been played simulaneously. Biscottos (biscotti?) are impossible under the current World Cup format (four teams in a group, overall goal difference is the first tiebreaker, last two matches played simultaneously).
The proposed three-team groups
The schedule of a three-team group (with teams imaginatively named A, B, and C) is:
- Matchday 1: A vs B
- Matchday 2: A vs C
- Matchday 3: B vs C
As you can see, the first problem with three is that it’s an odd number. Since there are two teams in a game of football, this means that there must be an “odd” team every matchday that doesn’t play. Thus the solution FIFA adopted after the 1982 World Cup — having each team play the final match simultaneously — can’t apply in a three-team group. One team (A in the example above) will miss out on the final matchday, and it is that team that will lose out in a biscotto.
If each game has a “winner” that guards against teams colluding on a mutually favorable result in the last group games.
However, this is far from being the case, as I’ll show below
How a biscotto is possible in the proposed 3-team groups
FIFA is suggesting that all matches will have a winner and a loser. I’m going to assume that we keep 3 points for a win (although it really makes no difference if draws aren’t possible: the result will be the same whether a win is worth 1 point or 100 points).
- Matchday 1: A beats B 1-0
- Matchday 2: C beats A 2-0
We then have the following table before the final game:
In the final game, B plays C. C agrees (implicitly or explicitly) to allow B to win 1-0, resulting in the following final table:
As we can see, C and B have taken advantage of playing the last game to ensure that they both progress at the expense of A.
How likely is this to happen?
A moment’s thought should demonstrate that the example above could have happened equally with C and B reversed. In fact, a biscotto happens whenever team A finishes with one win, one loss, and a zero or negative goal difference. Just for fun, I’ll illustrate that with a set of results where every game is decided by a penalty shootout (also demonstrating the inanity of FIFA’s claim that penalty shootouts will eliminate the biscotto):
- Matchday 1: A draws with B 0-0 (A wins on penalties)
- Matchday 2: C draws with A 0-0 (C wins on penalties)
- Matchday 3: B draws with C 1-1 (B wins on penalties)
A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that, if all teams are of equal quality, we should expect to see this situation somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 of the time. In reality, where teams are not of equal quality, it is somewhat less likely than this (team A could be much better or worse than the others, and thus finish with two wins or two losses), but nevertheless remains a clear possibility.
The only positive strand of light in this shower of FIFA bullshit for me is the fact that Scotland may actually qualify. However, in total honesty I’m happy to support England at major tournaments, I’m not a Scot suffering from ‘wee man syndrome’ and I respect the fact that England earn the right to get there because they’re better than us. Giving Scots the chance to be at a World Cup by increasing the number of teams by 16, is like asking a teenager to sit an primary school entrance exam against those who have just left nursery. (Even then the Scots would probably find a way to a way to balls it up – probably turning up pissed, wander off before its done to go to Greggs, and end up blaming the teacher for being biased.)
My suggestion is to have an FA Cup style World Cup and only have knock out matches and allow 166 teams to compete. This means the winners only need to play a maximum of seven matches to, just like it is currently. I’d make sure sure tickets are only sold to the two nations competing in that match (so fans can see their international team in a one off game and not have to shell out for weeks in expensive hotels on the gamble of obtaining an elusive match ticket.) Its exact working would go as follows: There are 211 teams in FIFA’s world rankings. If we give the top 45 in the world a bye to the 2nd round, then all 211 teams can take part. 166 nations in the first round, 83 winners go through to the 2nd where they are joined by the top 45 to make a round of 128. Therefore if someone from outside the top 45 made the final, they would still only play 8 matches. No ‘extra’ games for each player but a much bigger pot of live and watchable games for all.
Every revolution begins with a spark…. who’s with me?