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Everything you need to know about the World Cup’s fair-play tiebreaker

Igor Smolnikov of Russia reacts after being shown a second yellow card by referee Antonio Malang Diedhiou. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Senegal’s World Cup ended Thursday, due to yellow cards, as the African side became the first team eliminated from a World Cup due to FIFA’s fair play tiebreaker.

But what is the fair play tiebreaker?

FIFA has eight tiebreakers to determine which team advances out of group stage and which does not, in case of a second-place tie. (Or which team wins a group and which comes in second, in case of a tie atop the standings.) If the first six tiebreakers don’t resolve the matter, soccer’s governing body turns to the seventh, and most controversial, measure: “Fair Play Conduct Points.”

Here’s the full knockout round bracket and schedule

In short, the system rewards teams that don’t collect yellow and red cards. Here’s how it works.

Each team begins the tournament with zero points and loses points for each carded foul given by a referee. Teams lose:

  • one point for each yellow card
  • three points for each secondary yellow that leads to a red card
  • four points for a straight red card
  • five points for a yellow card and straight red card

After that, FIFA totals the number of points each team has lost, and the one with the fewest violations wins the tiebreaker.

So how does that impact this year’s World Cup participants?

In Group H play Thursday, Colombia defeated Senegal, 1-0, and Japan lost to Poland by the same score. Colombia won the group, but Senegal and Japan were level on the first six tiebreakers: group stage points (four), goal differential (even), goals scored in group matches (four), head-to-head result (a draw), head-to-head differential and head-to-head goals. That led to the deployment of the seventh tiebreaker: fair play points.

The fair play standings finished like this:

  1. Colombia (2-0-1, 6 points)
  2. Japan (1-1-1, 4 points), minus-4 fair play points
  3. Senegal (1-1-1, 4 points), minus-6 fair play points

Japan is thus on to the knockout round to face the winner of Group G, either Belgium or England, while Senegal is out of the World Cup, because of its two extra yellow cards.

“It’s the rules of the game,” Senegal Coach Aliou Cisse told reporters in Kazan. “They’ve been established by FIFA and we have to respect it, even though we would have liked to have been eliminated another way.”

Fair play conduct could have figured into the Group G standings, as well. Entering Thursday’s games, Belgium and England had already clinched spots in the knockout stage, but were level in points, goal differential and goals scored.

So, if the two sides had played to a draw on Thursday, fair play conduct would have determined the group’s winner. And if, by some chance, the two teams had finished level in all categories, including fair play conduct? Then FIFA would draw lots to decide first place in the group. Yes, a drawing of lots is the eighth and final tiebreaker.

Belgium’s 1-0 victory made that unnecessary.

Read more about the World Cup:

Complete standings, results and schedule

How well do you know the World Cup countries? Take our nesting doll quiz.

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