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Soccer lottery

Posted by John Powers, Globe Staff June 21, 2006 09:43 AM

This is when the World Cup turns into a lottery. What will it take to make it to the second round? Will a draw be good enough? Will even a victory be good enough? How much do you have to win by? Do you even want to win? Sometimes, you can win by losing if it means drawing a better matchup. The problem is, you don't know in advance.

The Germans wanted to avoid the English in the second round, so they went all out to beat Ecuador yesterday to win their group. But if the English had lost to the Swedes four hours later, the Germans would have gotten the English after all. So they had to play it straight -- and wait. That's why FIFA, which runs this quadrennial kickball tournament, changed the rules two decades ago, to avoid the possibility of teams dumping matches to help themselves or, worse, pre-arranging the results. Both of the final matches of a group kick off simultaneously, which means that the teams involved can't play games within games.

The catalyst for the change was the infamous match between Germany and Austria in 1982, which became known as The Anschluss Game. Germany had suffered a humiliating loss to Algeria in its first match. In order for both European teams to advance, the Germans had to win their meeting 1-0, which is exactly what happened. They scored in the 10th minute, then both teams kicked the ball around aimlessly for the rest of the match, making sure that Algeria (which had finished the previous day) was odd man out. In the official tournament video, narrator Sean Connery called it `a squalid non-aggression pact'.

Not that two teams won't cut deals (usually at the federation level) if they have the chance to. It's just more difficult these days because of the unknowns. Take the Americans' group, which concludes play tomorrow. All the Italians need do is draw with the Czechs and they'll advance. But if Ghana beats the US and Italy draws, the Italians will finish second and meet five-time champion Brazil, which is their worst nightmare. And if the Azzurri were to cut it too close and lose, they'll be out of the tournament if Ghana wins. So Italy will have to play to win, which is a huge help to the US.

The Yanks are in a peculiar position where winning might not be enough. If the Italians and Czechs draw, they'll have to beat Ghana by at least four goals to go through to the second round. It's all about the tiebreaker. If the Americans and Czechs have equal points, which they would with a US victory and a Czech draw, the first tiebreaker is goal differential. The Czechs have +1, the US -3. The second tiebreaker is goals scored. The Czechs have 3, the US 1. A four-goal spread over Ghana should give the Americans enough goals scored, but not if the Czechs keep scoring.

Which means that somebody on the US side will be monitoring the Czech-Italy match to figure out what's required. Not that the Americans, who've never scored four goals in a Cup match, may be able to do anything about it. It's not as if they can buy a bunch of goals on the spot market on short notice. "We've gotta win," says coach Bruce Arena, who'll let the rest of the mathematics sort themselves out.

Four years ago, his team was 20 minutes from being out of the tournament, down three goals to the Poles in the group finale. Then the Koreans, who needed only draw, ended up beating the Portuguese and the US won by losing and ended up making it to the quarterfinals. Go figure -- if you can.

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