Joy and despair are the closest of neighbors during the World Cup, as emotions swing on every shot. The tension is so high it’s cruel when bad luck rears up, and own goals are one way that can happen.
If the number of own goals are any indication, this World Cup is already among the cruelest in history. There were five own goals through the first 20 group-stage games, 11 percent of the total goals scored.
The record for own goals in a World Cup was set in 1998, when six were netted out of a total of 171. That amounts to 3.5 percent of the goals scored that year, the highest rate in World Cup history. That rate turns out to be in line with what is typical across some of the world’s biggest club leagues. The top leagues range between 2.3 and 3.5 percent over the course of their last full seasons, with Serie A in Italy being the highest.
Scoring in soccer tends to be low, especially in this World Cup, which was averaging 2.25 goals per game through Wednesday. This makes individual goals critically important. According to data from American Soccer Analysis across four years of MLS games, a goal that breaks a tie in the 30th minute is worth 0.75 points to the goal-scoring team. As the game progresses the stakes for each goal are higher. That same goal in the 80th minute is worth 1.4 points.
Points are precious in the group stage of the World Cup. Over the past five World Cups, teams that earn four points make the knockout round 52 percent of the time, and ones that reach five points have been a 100 percent lock. The fact that one fortunate late goal can get you 28 percent of the way to the knockout stage is quite a swing.
This tournament’s own goals have been particularly impactful. Each one of them have broken a tie and every one of the recipients has gone on to win the match. The chaos started in the 94th minute of the Iran-Morocco deadlock when Aziz Bouhaddouz headed the ball into his own net off a corner kick. That put Iran in contention for advancement from Group B.
Tournament favorite France was also the beneficiary of an own goal in its 2-1 win over underdog Australia. Initially, Paul Pogba was credited with scoring the looping shot from his right foot, but the goal was later credited to another Aziz — defender Aziz Behich.
Deflections can also be unfortunate as players sometimes don’t even have a moment to avoid an errant shot. Such a fate befell Nigerian Oghenekaro Etebo, who had a ball deflect off his leg and into the goal to give Croatia a 1-0 lead. Senegal also spun a shot off the leg of Poland’s Thiago Cionek and past keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who had already started to move the other direction.
In the most recent match with an own goal, host Russia received the break to snap a 0-0 second half tie against Egypt when Ahmed Fathy attempted a difficult clearance and put the ball in the net. Russia went on to win 3-1 and has all but confirmed a trip to the knockout stage. There’s a chance it will meet Iran in that match.
For all of the analysis that accompanies the World Cup, the smallest of inches and the oddest of angles can change the fate of its teams. How will Iran, Croatia, France, Senegal and Russia fare as the tournament progresses? In 1998, five of the six teams that benefited from own goals reached the knockout stage and two, France and Brazil, met in the final.
The way Russia has played, its one own goal has not defined its success, but the late own goal for Iran has catapulted Team Melli to within a win of the knockout stage. If it can manage an upset against Portugal on Monday it will become the story of the tournament. France and Croatia were favored to reach the knockout stage, and if anything, those goals gave them breathing room they otherwise didn’t earn. Senegal is the interesting team to watch. The Lions of Teranga were a dark horse to get through a difficult Group H; that own goal in their favor was worth 0.8 points to them, and now a win against Japan on Sunday will essentially guarantee they advance.
There were 44 matches left to be played entering Thursday, and even if the rest of them revert to a normal rate of own goals, there are three or four more yet to come. The record should easily be broken. Which nations will feel the sweetness of joy and which the sour of despair? Every last shot will play that out.
Read more about the World Cup: