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Are there no better alternatives to the “fair play” rule?

The World Cup only just finished the group stages yet we have already seen a fair share of controversies with the use of VAR referees and FIFA’s “fair play” rule. Yesterday, the latter sent Senegal packing.

For the first time ever, “fair play” points were used to break a tie in the group stage. Japan and Senegal were both deducted points in accordance with how many cards they accrued over the course of the group stage.

This is how it works: A first yellow card is minus one point, a second yellow card/indirect red card is minus three, a direct red card is minus four, and a yellow card and direct red card a whopping minus five points.

Japan accumulated four yellow cards, and were thus at -4 while Senegal had six. Those two yellows proved crucial as the teams were otherwise level in terms of goals scored, goal difference and points. 

Although the officiating crews are all refereeing under the same set of rules, their decisions are necessarily of a subjective nature. If yellow cards have the potential for being that powerful, should they also be referred to VAR?

Such decision-making would make for extremely disjointed matches and is unlikely to become a reality.

Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl suggested instead that shots on target could be used to decide tiebreakers.

Adding up Japan and Senegal’s shots on target throughout the group stage, they actually have the same amount of shots on target: 12 each.
They both had three shots on target in their respective matches yesterday. When Japan played 10-man Colombia they had six shots on target, while Senegal had two shots on target when they played Poland. When they played each other, Japan had three shots on target while Senegal had seven.

Should the deciding factor then be that Senegal had more shots on target when they played each other?
That solution doesn’t seem much better in terms of randomness.

Another suggested solution, as Bobby McMahon points out in Forbes, is penalties.
He wrote: “In games that finish as draws at the group stage, make the two teams compete in a penalty kick shootout as per the knockout rounds. However, the result of the penalty decider would be used to break a tie only in the event of a Senegal-Japan situation.”

This seems like a far more fair solution than the current discipline rule even though the nerve-wrecking nature of penalty shootouts might have less of a nerve this way.

Hopefully FIFA will also have come to the conclusion that the “fair play” rule as it stands is not purporting what it promises: it is not fair. 

Featured image: oddsock/Ian Burt 


Ingrid Sund
Ingrid has always loved writing and exploring different angles of a story and is now able to combine this with her passion for sports. She is a graduate of the University of St Andrews, where she studied International Relations. Her general interest in politics has led to a special interest in the politics and legal regulations of the sporting industry. While she finds all sports fascinating, her favourites are tennis, cycling and football. Ingrid is Norwegian and grew up a keen follower of winter sports, and will also cover these for the Sports Gazette.
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