Sweden 2 Denmark 2 and other football tournament oddities
This Friday the European Football Championship 2012 kicks off in Poland and Ukraine. I’m looking forward to it a lot, although it is always an interesting challenge to work out how to fit my normal activities around matches every evening for the best part of a month (two matches a night for the first couple of weeks, in fact).
During my Saint Etienne post I mentioned that their idea of putting following football and music charts together resonated with me. I love the big international football championships for their drama, tension, (sometimes) high quality football and the number of fascinating individual stories that get threaded together. Those will come up, but I’m chiefly going to talk about a particularly chart-like and more idiosyncratic thing that I also love, which is the final tables for the group stages.
Individual matches have a relatively limited number of possible outcomes, even when played over two legs. Over whole league seasons, things can still hang on a single goal at the end, but teams are generally spread out enough that the possibilities will be not much wider. World Cup and European Championship groups with their four teams, six games and two spots in the next round on offer are a perfect balance between the two. They have a range of outcomes that is big but just about possible to keep in mind, and are close enough to regularly come down to tie-breakers like goal difference and therefore be subject to sudden swings from seemingly unimportant goals.
I’m going to talk about five of my favourite peculiar outcomes from the past twenty years that I’ve been watching. Hopefully it will be of interest to some of you, though I’m aware that it will be incomprehensible to others. Feel free not to click through. Is this what ‘Inside Baseball’ means? I’ve never quite got that one.
Final standings screen-capped from Wikipedia, pretty much everything else from memory.
1994 World Cup, Group E
I think I just have an affinity for numbers and possibilities that means that I would have been fascinated by this stuff even if it hadn’t have been my introduction to tournament football, but, well, this is where it begins. I watched every game that I could of USA ‘94 with the wonder that came of it being my first exposure to players, teams and probably countries that I’d never heard of before. However, with England failing to qualify, I was most closely following and supporting Ireland since they were nearest, had an English manager and lots of familiar players who played for English clubs. Their group turned out a freak result which hasn’t been repeated since.
No game had more than one goal in it. Ireland managed a famous and unexpected 1-0 victory over Italy, lost 2-1 to Mexico in stifling Florida heat and played out a dull 0-0 with Norway. Norway’s negative approach managed to nick them a 1-0 win against Mexico but they lost to Italy by the same score. Italy and Mexico drew 1-1. All four teams finished with not only the same number of points, but the same goal difference. Three of them even had similar looking flags. It came down to the small difference in goals scored, with the more positive teams being rewarded. Ireland were ahead of Italy on the basis that they’d beaten them; Italy scraped through in third place as it was the last World Cup with only 24 teams and the best four of six third place finishers therefore got a pass into the round of 16. That lucky escape out of the way, they went on to reach the final and lose to Brazil by the equally narrow margins of a penalty shoot-out.
Euro ‘96, Group A
At Euro ‘96, the most fascinating outcome again involved teams from the British Isles (although Group C and the Czech Republic’s last gasp progress was pretty tasty too). It was set up by the unlikely success of Scotland’s rearguard action against the Netherlands managing a 0-0 draw. Both went on to beat Switzerland and lose to England, meaning that they both finished with 4 points and had to be separated by goal difference and goals scored.
England’s final game in the group was a victory over the Netherlands which is arguably their single greatest result in the entire twenty years that I’ve been following them. I hold additional fond memories of it personally, as while the tournament was taking place in England I was on a family holiday in Delft and watched it in a camping resort bar with a crowd split roughly 50/50 English/Dutch. I remember someone going round the room beforehand and asking people for their predictions, and one boy suggesting that England would win 3-0. Even at the age of 11, I thought that this was a laughably naive notion, but that night everything went right. England went in at half time 1-0 ahead and scored three more in a crazy period of just over ten minutes in the second half. It was amazing.
Then Kluivert got a goal back for the Dutch to make it 4-1. It was way too late to make any difference to the outcome of match but, as it turned out, it was no mere consolation goal. It brought them back level with Scotland on goal difference and ahead on goals scored. It was the goal that put the Netherlands through to the next round, and one slip for England had helped Scotland maintain their record of never getting past a tournament first round. I am not big on anti-Scotland feeling but I still find that rather funny.
1998 World Cup, Group D
The thing to remember for this one is that, before they started conquering all before them, Spain had an extensive record of going into every tournament with high hopes and then underachieving. Something which offers hope to England fans of today, as long as we can delude ourselves into thinking that we have players as good as theirs coming through. 1998 was a particularly great example of underachievement.
Spain lost a very entertaining see-saw opening match against Nigeria 3-2 while tough to break down Paraguay v Bulgaria finished 0-0. Paraguay v Spain was then also goalless, leaving Spain needing a strong result in their last match. Except that, having beaten Bulgaria, Nigeria were already guaranteed of going through going into the final matches. Spain finally performed as they were capable of and stormed to a 6-1 victory, but it was totally in vain because Paraguay beat Nigeria and got second. The scale of their victory and the fact that Paraguay hadn’t scored up to that point rendered it a little surreal, but there it was.
Euro 2004, Group C
Possibly the most famous one, this. Tiebreaker rules in Euro 2004:
- Greater number of points in the matches between the teams in question
- Goal difference from matches between the teams in question
- Greater number of goals scored in matches between the teams in question
- Goal difference resulting from all three group games
Euro 2008, Group C
This was one that never quite was, but offered some joyous possible outcomes ahead of the final games. Expected to be a close run thing between the Netherlands, Italy and France, in fact the Netherlands turned on the style and beat each of the others by three goals in their first two games. In their other matches, France and Italy both drew with Romania. This meant that the Netherlands, like Nigeria above, were already guaranteed to win the group and could afford to rest for the final game (I managed to replicate this situation with my Dutch Pop World Cup squad in 2010 and took the opportunity to inflict indie on everyone). It also meant that Italy and France went into the last game against each other with exactly matching records.
The delicious possibility was raised that if Italy and France drew (and Romania got a result, where ‘a result’ merely meant losing less terribly), Italy and France would both be out of the competition but still have to contest a penalty shoot-out to determine who finished third. Sadly, UEFA quashed that one, Italy won the game and the Netherlands went on winning to go on to Arshavin and extra time heartbreak in the next round. Oh well.