Will Germany and USA engineer a mutually beneficial draw?

Headed into the final  group stage games of the 2014 World Cup, the standings in Group G are:

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Germany 2 1 1 0 6 2 +4 4
USA 2 1 1 0 4 3 +1 4
Ghana 2 0 1 1 3 4 -1 1
Portugal 2 0 1 1 2 6 -4 1

With the final games being Germany-USA and Ghana-Portugal, Germany and USA both have their fate in their hands, each knowing that a win or a draw would ensure qualification for the second round. A draw would mean that both teams go through, so there has been some talk about whether the two teams will play about a mutually beneficial draw.

The spectre of the 1982 World Cup rears its ugly head here. Algeria had won their final group match against Chile to give themselves a good chance of making it out of the group. However, the other final group game took place a day later, with Austria and Germany knowing that if Germany won the game between them by no more than two goals, then both teams would advance to the second round at the expense of the Algerians. Lo and behold, after Germany scored in the 10th minute what followed was 80 minutes of negative play from both sides, with players largely passing the ball around in their own half and back to the keeper (this was before the back-pass rule was implemented).  The legacy of this match is that final matches in the same group in major tournaments are now played at the same time.

However, this does leave scenarios like the one we have now which could lead to play against the spirit of the game. An oft-cited example is Sweden and Denmark playing out a 2-2 draw in Euro 2004, to put out Italy. However, had Italy beaten Bulgaria by three goals (they only won 1-0) then a Sweden-Denmark draw would’ve put Denmark out, so a draw strategy was risky for Denmark, although a high-scoring draw increased their chances of advancing on goals scored should Italy have won by two goals.

There have been some analogous examples of the Group G situation in past international tournaments (by analogous I mean a points situation of 4-4-1-1 going into the final game with the teams on 4 points playing one another, and with no chance of the team finishing 3rd advancing too). Let’s look at how those unfolded.


Tunisia vs Angloa, 2008 African Cup of Nations

Situation before the final group matches:

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Tunisia 2 1 1 0 5 3 +2 4
Angola 2 1 1 0 4 2 +2 4
Senegal 2 0 1 1 3 5 -2 1
S Africa 2 0 1 1 2 4 -2 1

The results:

Tunisia 0-0 Angola

Senegal 1-1 South Africa

Here we have an example where the two teams in question did play out a draw, and an unexciting goalless draw as well. In the end it hardly mattered as Senegal-South Africa ended in a draw too meaning Tunisia and Angola would have both gone through anyway. Further, Senegal or South Africa would have needed a four-goal turnaround to progress on goal difference, which would have been a tall order.

Final group standings:

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Tunisia 3 1 2 0 5 3 +2 5
Angola 3 1 2 0 4 2 +2 5
Senegal 3 0 2 1 4 6 -2 2
S Africa 3 0 2 1 3 5 -2 2


Uruguay vs Mexico, 2010 World Cup

Situation before the final group matches:

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Uruguay 2 1 1 0 3 0 +3 4
Mexico 2 1 1 0 3 1 +2 4
France 2 0 1 1 0 2 -2 1
S Africa 2 0 1 1 1 4 -3 1

The results:

Uruguay 1-0 Mexico

France 1-2 South Africa

In this case, an imploding France had been written off before the match because surely Mexico and Uruguay would go for the draw? The BBC’s staid pundits certainly thought so, with Danny Baker treated like a madman when he came into the studio and suggested otherwise.

Well he was wrong, although his manner of being wrong was far more interesting than the manner in which any of the pundits were right for the entirety of the World Cup. He was however correct in that Mexico and Uruguay did not draw. A goal in the 43rd minute from who else but Luis Suárez led to a Uruguay win, but Mexico advanced anyway as a 5-goal deficit in goal difference proved too much for South Africa to turn around (France would have had a better shot at displacing Mexico with only a 4-goal deficit). I imagine that the Mexican players did not worry too much late on in the game as it became clear that the other scoreline was not troubling them overly.

Final group standings:

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Uruguay 3 2 1 0 4 0 +4 7
Mexico 3 1 1 1 3 2 +1 4
S Africa 3 1 1 1 3 5 -2 4
France 3 0 1 2 1 4 -3 1


England vs Netherlands, Euro 96

Situation before the final group matches:

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
England 2 1 1 0 3 1 +2 4
Netherlands 2 1 1 0 2 0 +2 4
Switzerland 2 0 1 1 1 3 -2 1
Scotland 2 0 1 1 0 2 -2 1

The results:

England 4-1 Netherlands

Scotland 1-0 Switzerland

In this case England were hosts, so guaranteed advancement would be beneficial for the tournament, and a draw would mean not only that England were through but eternal rivals Scotland were out – so presumably a draw would have been a no-brainer? What transpired instead was what is generally considered to be one of England’s greatest performances, and the peak of the Shearer and Sheringham SAS partnership. Scotland, leading 1-0 against Switzerland, were headed through on goal difference until Patrick Kluivert scored a more-than-consolation goal for the Netherlands. Scotland (and England) were unable to get the extra goal that would have sent them through, and Netherlands went through on goals scored.

Final group standings:

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
England 3 2 1 0 7 2 +5 7
Netherlands 3 1 1 1 3 4 -1 4
Scotland 3 1 1 1 1 2 -1 4
Switzerland 3 0 1 2 1 4 -3 1


So can we expect Germany and USA to play out a draw? It’s possible and probably would be logical for both teams. However it does enter the realm of game theory – can each team trust that the other will play for the draw too? Surely, if he’s on the pitch, Miroslav Klose wouldn’t pass up a goalscoring opportunity to become the top scorer in World Cup history outright with 16 goals. Would  Thomas Müller do so, given that he has a decent shot at taking the record himself one day with 8 World Cup goals already at the age of 24? A goal for Clint Dempsey would put him level with Landon Donovan as USA’s top World Cup goalscorer. Would anyone for that matter pass up the opportunity to score in a World Cup?

Then you have goal difference as it stands. Germany are in a better position than USA, with a five-goal advantage over Ghana and eight over Portugal, while for the USA it’s five over Portugal and only two over Ghana – if USA were to lose and Ghana win with either one being by more than one goal then USA are out. USA can only go through if they lose and Ghana win if both are by one goal and USA score at worst one fewer goals against the USA than Ghana do against Portugal. So Germany might be willing to go for a win with a loss being a lower risk, while USA might be happier to settle for a draw.

The other factor coming into this is who they might face in the rest of the tournament. A winner of Germany-USA would go through as top, with a draw it would be Germany. The 2nd-placed team would play the winners of group H, which will be decided after group G, but is likely to be Belgium, while the top team will probably play Russia or Algeria, on paper an easier game. However, the bracket for the rest of the knockout stage will have been determined, so one half of the draw may appear preferable to the other, and that could be under consideration.

All-in-all, there’s no evidence that a draw is guaranteed to happen between USA and Germany, but it’s worth noting that in all of the cases seen here that the two teams in question still went through. So while Germany and USA both advancing is the most likely scenario, I wouldn’t necessarily bet the house on them doing so with a draw.

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