Why are World Cup games now appearing in pairs rather than four of them, one after another, a day?


This is why World Cup games will be played at the same time for the next four [three] days.

West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup in Gijón, Spain.
West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup in Gijón, Spain.Credit…Popperfoto, via Getty Images

By Ben Shpigel

  • Nov. 29, 2022, Updated 11:09 a.m. ET

For eight straight days, the soccer smorgasbord that is the World Cup has unspooled at regular intervals, each match staggered to bestow it maximum importance, a full 90 minutes of splendor — plus an eon of stoppage time — on the global stage without intrusion from other games.

Even if upsets abounded, a certain tidiness to the proceedings still reigned: On most of those eight days, there were four games, scheduled three hours apart, one after another after another. It was glorious, satisfying and, for those of us who crave order, rather life-affirming.

Now, as of Tuesday, structure is on a brief hiatus. Dear reader, prepare for chaos.

Starting with the Group A games at 10 a.m. Eastern time, each of the eight clusters across the next four days will stage its final round of matches simultaneously.

Qatar will kick off against the Netherlands on Tuesday at the same time that Ecuador does the same against Senegal. After a break, the United States’ clash with Iran in Group B is scheduled to start at 2 p.m., precisely when England’s matchup with Wales begins.

The change in schedule creates the closest conditions to competitive balance and fair play, assuring that teams do not know the result required to reach the knockout stage before they take the field. It discourages teams from improving pathways in the bracket by influencing results with such tactics as manipulating goal differential or not playing to win. It also inhibits match fixing.

The policy dates to a moment so embarrassing for international soccer — which has had one or two or nine — that it came to merit a shorthand of sorts: the Disgrace of Gijón. Or, in Germany, Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (the nonaggression pact of Gijón).

At the 1982 World Cup in Spain, heading into their final match in group play, West Germany and Austria realized that a victory for West Germany by one or two goals would enable both teams to progress — and thus eliminate upstart Algeria, which, after finishing group play a day earlier, needed an Austria win or draw to move on.

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In the 11th minute, Horst Hrubesch scored for West Germany. Then, torpidity and languor and boredom and yawn. For the rest of the match, George Vecsey wrote in The New York Times, “West Germany made more kicks backward than forward.” The arrangement secured both teams’ passage.

In his book about the rise of African soccer, “Feet of the Chameleon,” Ian Hawkey wrote that Algeria fans waved bank notes at the players, and that German television called it “the most shameful day in the history of our Football Federation.”

Algeria complained to FIFA, but no punishment would be levied. Instead, FIFA responded by amending its rules: Starting with the 1986 World Cup, all final matches in a group would be held concurrently. So, now they are.

Enjoy the mayhem. Embrace the absurdity.

Ben Shpigel is a senior editor on the Live desk. Previously, he had covered sports for The Times since 2005. @benshpigel

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