Best third-placed qualification: a fair or unfair competition format?

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Soccer has changed, but the issue of a classified team thanks to a wild card has already been a rule in several tournaments for years and has not yet been evaluated

Best third-placed qualification: a fair or unfair competition format?

I was talking with some friends about the possible qualifiers for the quarterfinals of the Copa América Brazil 2019 and the issue of the best third-placed came up. One of them, a non-specialist, asked, "How is it that a better third-placed can become a champion?", and took a position against this format, which many may consider attractive and others unfair. That is precisely what I propose in this article.

Leer en español: Los mejores terceros: ¿un formato de competición justo o injusto?

The first thing we must say is that the best third is an alternative that has a tradition in FIFA competitions. In the World Cup, the editions of Mexico 86, Italy 90 and United States 94 were played with the format of six groups of four teams, in which to be able to play the round of eighth finals it was necessary to give place to the four best third of those six groups. From France 98 on, when the quota of participants was extended to 32, the modification became more logical, since only the two best of each group qualified to establish the 16 that dispute the round of 16. This format will be maintained at least until Qatar 2022.

However, the best third-placed format is still used in the U-20 World Cup and in the Women's World Cup. Of course, it was implemented in the Copa América, which since the edition of Ecuador 1993 —when the quota was extended to 12— gives access to two better third-placed from three out of four groups, so as to have the best eight in the quarterfinals. The Copa América only had the 10 countries that make up the Conmebol until 1991. At that time, with two groups of five countries, the best two of each zone classified for a final match.

In the professional leagues of the United States, for example, similar cases are seen with the so-called wild card. It happens in both the National Football League (NFL) and the Major League Baseball (MLB), in which, for each division, a few seconds (those with the best record) end up advancing for an extra and unique game. If they win it, it allows them to remain in the competition in the postseason phase. Therefore, it is not new. And yes, it is attractive because teams often change in stages of direct elimination and improve, while others, with regular immaculate campaigns, deflate at times of greatest pressure.

Read also: Another record in FIFA Women World Cup! USA 13, Thailand 0

Fair or unfair?

In soccer, and in sports in general, it is difficult to evaluate fairness, because in the end what matters is the result. The forms are important, but usually end up being forgotten to the detriment of the name of the team that ends up winning a tournament. Do you remember the Greece that won the European Championship in 2004 in Portugal? It played horrible, but defended well and in dead-ball situations they were infallible.

Then, fairness also ends up being relative, because all the champions in the history of sport carry with them some merit that allowed them to achieve something. It's like life itself. Now, when we talk about numbers or figures, they are irrefutable.

I return to the conversation with the friend that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, because we said that, at that moment, Paraguay, with two points out of the nine possible, could advance as a better third party if there was a tie between Japan and Ecuador, which finally occurred. A fact that challenged logic. Even in Group B of the Copa América, there was a phenomenon that at least I have never seen in 33 years of my life as a soccer spectator. Colombia beat Paraguay 1-0 and won its three matches to reach nine points. Argentina surpassed Qatar 2-0, but if they had drawn, that zone would have left Argentinians, Asians, and Guaranis in the second place with just 2 points. There we do not even speak of a better third-placed, but even as a second-palced, a team could advance a phase with so little production.

But it can also happen in reverse. How? Recently, in the Women's World Cup in France 2019, Italy, Brazil and Australia were tied with 6 points after winning between them, while Jamaica lost with all getting zero points in the C series. Fortunately, there ranked the four best third-placed and Brazil, who by goal average was third, could advance with 6 points out of 9 possible. But I ask: what would have happened if it was a tournament in which only two are classified per group? The Brazilians would have been eliminated. Yes, that's a fact.


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Then, in the end, not always the best third-placed is bad or unfair; sometimes, it may be the best thing that happens to a team that have merits to advance and is achieved in a very competitive group. It will depend on how the group is and that is something that we can not notice or know, it just happens. It is part of the sport, of soccer in this case, and no competition system can avoid it. Luckily, never a team with six points has been eliminated and not one with only two has advanced as a second.

However, as we saw that can happen, my final consideration is that FIFA should implement some clause, rule, condition, something, allowing that, if in the group stage a national team achieves six points being third, it can classify, especially to the detriment of a second that barely managed two, three or four points. It would be something unprecedented, but necessary in the most popular sport on the planet.

Possibly many will criticize it, but I really believe that it would be the closest thing to fairness even when the independence of each group is sacrificed. Hopefully it will never happen, but if it happens, FIFA will have to do something to avoid what generated this article: that fans consider their competitions unfair.


LatinAmerican Post | Onofre Zambrano

Translated from "Los mejores terceros: ¿un formato de competición justo o injusto?"