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Please Give Us the England-Belgium Deathmatch We All Want to See

With “fair play” rules a possible tiebreaker separating the two leaders of Group G —and both teams eyeing second place—we could be headed for a rash of yellow cards, for various reasons

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before I discovered Grand Theft Auto, one of my first acts of video game violence came in an early version of FIFA. Without much knowledge of the Premier League or any understanding of why the game kept saying some of my prettiest goals were “offsides,” I had to find alternate ways of entertaining myself with a soccer video game. After getting two red cards in a match, a friend and I set out to see just how many players we could get ejected from one game. We did absolutely nothing with one controller, forcing players on one team to stand perfectly still. With the other team, we sprinted up behind the helpless opponents and slide-tackled into their legs. Modern renditions of FIFA have a built-in automatic forfeit if a team picks up more than five red cards, following actual FIFA guidelines that matches should be abandoned if one team is reduced to fewer than seven players. But hard as we tried, we couldn’t get more than three players ejected in a given game.

Our attempt to break the game (and as many pixelated players’ legs as we could) was, luckily, an experiment that existed solely inside of my Nintendo 64. But due to an unlikely scenario and a new rule, England and Belgium might be wise to act out a similar course of action during their Thursday match to decide who will win Group G and who will come in the coveted second place. (More on this later.)

Both England and Belgium proved themselves to be far better than the two other teams in their group, each winning against Panama and Tunisia. That England and Belgium are tied with six points on the last day of the group isn’t unusual—but what is unusual is that both teams are also tied in multiple tiebreakers. Having both truly crushed their first two opponents, each side has a goal differential of plus-6, and each has scored eight goals, tied for the most of any team in the World Cup. The next tiebreaker is head-to-head performance, so if England and Belgium were to play to a draw in their final game, the winner of the group would be determined by “fair play”—based on how many yellow and red cards the teams accumulated over the course of the group stage. (Thursday, Senegal became the first team ever eliminated by fair play points.)

So far as I can tell, this is the first World Cup where fair play has been used as a tiebreaker. In past World Cups, the tie-breaking procedures went straight from head-to-head to a “drawing of lots,” which has used just once, and thankfully, between teams already advancing. (Here’s a young Sepp Blatter conducting that drawing of lots in 1990.) In the tie-breaking procedures for World Cup qualifiers or in the UEFA Champions League group stages, fair play is well down the list, because those competitions also include metrics based on away goals. But since all World Cup games are at neutral sites, that’s not an option. And since the World Cup group stages feature just three games per team, there’s a relatively high chance of the more obscure tiebreakers getting used.

Fair play is kind of an awkward choice for a tiebreaker. In the course of a game, a referee’s strictness or lack thereof affects both teams equally. But it seems unfair to measure the collective fair play of two teams playing different games officiated by different refs. As you may have noticed, referees can have extremely different opinions about what constitutes a yellow card.

The good news is that both Belgium and England are through to the next round already. We don’t have to worry about one team failing to advance to the knockout stage because of a card-happy ref. We’ve seen games with two teams guaranteed to advance before, like on Monday when Uruguay played Russia. They’re glorified friendlies, with both teams putting forth their best effort but also resting key players to avoid injury.

But there’s a twist with Belgium-England. Normally, the preferred outcome would be to win the group. But as it turns out, the team that wins Group G will be put in the loaded top half of the World Cup bracket, with a quarterfinal match against the winner of Brazil-Mexico, plus the winners of France-Argentina and Portugal-Uruguay lying in wait. Between those six teams, there are five of the top seven teams in the FIFA World Rankings and 11 of the 20 combined World Cup trophies. The second-place team in Group G will be in the less-threatening bottom half of the bracket, with a quarterfinal match against the winner of Sweden-Switzerland, plus the winners of Croatia-Denmark and Russia-Spain as potential semifinal opponents. Only one of those teams (Spain) has ever won a World Cup, and four of those nations failed to win their European qualifying group.

Losing would be the smartest option, but it’s probably hard to convince players to lose a game intentionally. So the smart thing to do—and, as I can confirm from my FIFA experience, the most fun thing to do—is to be the most unruly soccer team you can, in an attempt to rack up as many fair-play demerits as possible. Heading into the match, Belgium have three yellow cards and England have two. If they end the game tied and tied on fair-play points, then (let’s say it all together): Drawing! Of! Lots! We’ve seen teams come to silly arrangements due to tournament advancement scenarios in the final games of group stage before—the famous one is the Disgrace of Gijón, although my favorite one is the 1994 Caribbean Cup qualifying match where Barbados defended both nets to ensure a match went to extra time. But if both teams agree to partake, Thursday’s Bad Behavior Brawl will become a true epic in the category. Some suggestions for England and Belgium:

  • Right after the whistle, have seven or eight players on your team take their shirts off. Taking off your shirt as a celebration is an automatic yellow card, as explained in FIFA’s official powerpoint presentation about yellow cards by about seven slides of shirtless players. Presumably, you get just one card per shirt removal, so just play the whole game that way.
  • Insulting the referee is, of course, a yellow card, so spend the night before the game brainstorming particularly cutting jokes about the official, and just spend 90 minutes going to town on him.
  • Play a legitimate soccer game—except put your goalkeeper in a regular jersey and keep him in net, and have one of your other players in the outfield wear the goalkeeper’s jersey and gloves. If the goalie does make a save, he’ll be given an automatic red card for stopping a goalscoring opportunity by handling the ball. A straight red card is considered the equivalent of four yellows in the fair-play standings.
  • Did you know that it’s an automatic red card to spit on an opponent intentionally? That seems pretty harmless! Just have a midgame loogie-spitting contest, directed at your opposition. Try not to spit in their faces—that’s gross. Just spit on their clothes. They’re getting washed after the game anyway.

Now, intentionally getting booked is something that can result in harsh punishments for players—in the past, FIFA has suspended players for picking up seemingly deliberate yellow cards to ensure that they’ll be available for one match and suspended for another. So each team will need to make sure only their least important players take part in the punishment-fest. Either team will probably get in serious trouble for deliberately rigging a game, so one of these deep reserves needs to take one for the team and make it look like they’re acting on their own. Seems like a job for … [scans England roster] Phil Jones! Yeah, I think this guy can awkwardly tackle somebody without making it look fishy.

Of course, the teams could try to get yellow cards by intentionally injuring each other, creating a World Cup Deathmatch. But I find it unlikely that you could convince a group of professional athletes to injure their opponents intentionally. After all, Sergio Ramos plays for Spain.

This piece was updated at 12:00 p.m. ET on June 28 with additional information after publication.