On Thursday at 2pm GMT, the football matches for group H of the World Cup 2018 will begin. By 4 pm GMT, the fate of that group will be decided.

Let us assume that Japan comes first and Colombia comes second (not an unlikely outcome, actually), both hence qualifying for the second round. Now, at 6pm GMT, the matches of group G begin. Belgium and England are already qualified for the next round, but they play against each other in order to decide who goes first, and thus, to decide whom are they to play in the next round.

Now, under the reasonable assumption that Colombia is a better team than Japan (which is the case in terms of both Fifa ranking and world cup experience), you would expect Belgium and England would like to play Japan in the next round. Not only this, but coming second of the group will mean avoiding Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay, Portugal, and/or France in the next rounds up to the final. In the other side of the qualifications, the only big teams are Spain and Croatia. As such, there is a huge incentive for Belgium and England to come second of the group.

Now, the only certain way for a team to come second is to lose the match (they are tied in everything else, and qualifying position might depend on a Fair Play ranking, which changes during their match anyway).

This scenario is quite strange. It is not that both directly benefit (and thus put effort) in a draw, but quite the opposite: they benefit from a defeat! Thus, you could imagine both putting no effort, or playing only with substitutes, or even, if they remain in a tie, to score an own-goal in the last minute of extra-time! I would imagine that all this is perfectly legal, but is it? Can a team be investigated for this behaviour? Presumably, football rules are tailored to foster competitive behaviour, i.e. to foster a win. Perhaps there are rules against evident own-goals to induce defeat?

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    Not to mention the infamous own-goal efforts when the "Golden goal" overtime rule was tried -- teams got 1 point for a win in regulation but 2 points in OT, so... Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 15:39
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    Moderator note: I've trimmed back the question, answers and (lots of) comments which deviate from the initial very interesting question as to whether a team can attempt to deliberately lose. Please try and keep things focused on that point - for a wider discussion, please ask a separate question or we always have The Clubhouse, our chat room.
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 18:44

4 Answers 4


Sports governing bodies come down very, very heavily on teams deliberately losing - a very similar example to the England/Belgium World Cup situation is from badminton at the 2012 Olympics, when the teams which deliberately lost were disqualified. FIFA would almost certainly deal with any blatant deliberate losing in the same kind of way; see also a cricket match where a team deliberately lost which again resulted in their disqualification from the tournament.

There is nothing explicit within the main body of the Laws of the Game which requires teams attempt to win, although players can of course be cautioned for "unsporting behaviour". Is attempting to lose "unsporting"? I don't think there's a clear consensus on that one, but given the extensive media speculation on this one I'd hope that FIFA has given guidance to both the match officials and the teams involved.

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    This happened recently at the end of the 2017-18 season in The Netherlands amateur football where a team deliberately lost the final match in competition. Strangely enough only losing that match led to them being placed for the play-offs for the next higher level. They were penalized and barred from the play-offs so they could not gain promotion. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 11:35
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    Note that you can absolutely score own goals with the objective of ultimately winning, if the rules are sufficiently broken.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 4:56
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    Ed Werenich loudly pointed out the idiocy of such a play-off system in the Men's Canadian Curling Championship a couple of decades ago This resulted in the Page Playoff System being universally adopted across Canadian Curling The World Curling Association remains stubbornly opposed to this scheme in both World Championships and the Olympics. Both Pakistan and India use the Page Playoff System for major Cricket championships. Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 20:20

I doubt something like AS Adema 149–0 SO l'Emyrne will happen here.

FIFA has some fair play regulations giving them the possibility to act accordingly and they're warned. It will be possible to disqualify a team trying to lose deliberately.

The Regulations for Russia 2018:

Rule 5.4:

On entering the competition, the participating member associations and their Team Delegation Members automatically undertake to:
g) observe the principles of fair play

or Rule 12.3

In addition, the players agree in particular to:
a) respect the spirit of fair play, non-violence and the authority of the match officials;

Both will dealt with according to Rule 12.1

Disciplinary incidents are dealt with in compliance with the FIFA Disciplinary Code in force and all relevant circulars and directives, with which the participating member associations undertake to comply.

The FIFA Disciplinary Code then states:

Rule 57:

Anyone who insults someone in any way, especially by using offensive gestures or language, or who violates the principles of fair play or whose behaviour is unsporting in any other way may be subject to sanctions in accordance with art. 10 ff.

In short, these punishments are possible:

10 Sanctions common to natural and legal persons

Both natural and legal persons are punishable by the following sanctions:

  • warning;
  • reprimand;
  • fine;
  • return of awards.

11 Sanctions applicable to natural persons

The following sanctions are applicable only to natural persons:

  • caution;
  • expulsion;
  • match suspension;
  • ban from dressing rooms and/or substitutes’ bench;
  • ban from entering a stadium;
  • ban on taking part in any football-related activity.

12 Sanctions applicable to legal persons

The following sanctions are applicable only to legal persons:

  • transfer ban;
  • playing a match without spectators;
  • playing a match on neutral territory;
  • ban on playing in a particular stadium;
  • annulment of the result of a match;
  • expulsion;
  • forfeit;
  • deduction of points;
  • relegation to a lower division
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    Nice answer with a lot of references, but I cannot avoid noticing there is no definition for "fair play" or "sporting behaviour", thus not referencing if "losing on purpose" or "not giving your max effort" fall inside those categories. There should be a definition to that somewhere, shouldn't it? (down to the dictionary level, maybe?)
    – xDaizu
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 11:39
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    @xDaizu that would require them to define any type of unsportsmanlike behavior, which would end up in a very long list. Also this would enable loopholes in the rules and make them vulnerable to protests, because they might have missed something. Not giving your max effort is fine, because where do you draw the line? Play with a B squad and just don't care is what some teams already do and FIFA does nothing about it. But losing on purpose crosses the line by far and has been sanctioned in the past already.
    – dly
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 12:25
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    @xDaizu hard to tell.. I'm not a lawyer and we all know how FIFA people tick sometimes. Not sure, if this is a good fit for Law.SE, but an interesting question nonetheless.
    – dly
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 12:44
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    Very thorough answer. I would add for @xDaizu that the FIFA Code of Conduct for Football expressly includes the requirement to Play to Win and Play Fair. Attempting to deliberately lose by own goals for seeding would certainly violate both of these. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 16:58
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    @xDaizu: "I cannot avoid noticing there is no definition for "fair play" or "sporting behaviour"" – That is the whole point of those catch-all articles! And in fact, since you mention courts and legal systems, they all pretty much have such articles. In Germany, for example, the buck stops at Article 1 of the Basic Law (Constitution), which says "The Human Dignity is Untouchable". Or, German Contract Law has an article about anything that violates "good morals" being null and void. Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 21:24


The answer is more or less "FIFA takes the action it feels like taking". We can look at examples and speculate, but that's about it.

..with that said:

This has already happened, in a lower status international tournament, the 1998 Tiger Cup. Quotes from Wikipedia:

This tournament was marred by an unsportsmanlike match between Thailand and Indonesia during the group stage. Both teams were already assured of qualification for the semi-finals, but both teams also knew that the winners of the game would face hosts Vietnam in the semi-finals, while the losing team would face surprise group winners Singapore, who were perceived to be easier opposition, and would also avoid the inconvenience of moving the team's training base from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi for the semi-finals. The first half saw little action, with both teams barely making any attempt to score. During the second half both teams managed to score, resulting in a 2–2 score after 90 minutes. During injury time, despite two Thai defenders attempting to stop him, Indonesian defender Mursyid Effendi deliberately scored an own goal, handing Thailand a 3–2 victory.

FIFA took action against both teams

FIFA fined both teams $40,000 for "violating the spirit of the game", while Mursyid was banned from domestic football for one year and international football for life. In the semi-finals, Thailand lost to Vietnam, and Indonesia lost to Singapore. In the final, the title was to elude the hosts, as they went down 1–0 to unfancied Singapore in one of the competition's biggest shocks to date

Another answer has already quoted a lot of the Fifa disciplinary code and the Regulations for the 2018.

It turns out they have fairly wide and vaguely defined authority to enforce the "spirit of fair play".

The Fifa code of conduct describes not "playing to win" as "cheating" ones opponents and "deceiving" the crowd.

Fifa could do the same thing as in 1996, or harser, it's up to them. The most important thing to understand is that there's a huge amount of room for Fifa's discretion.

However, I think it's pretty clear that action would be taken against an extremely obvious attempt to lose.

But wait there's more.

A similar thing has happened at World Cup, in 1982.

The Disgrace of Gijón was a 1982 FIFA World Cup football match played between West Germany and Austria at the El Molinón stadium in Gijón, Spain, on 25 June 1982. The match was the last game of the first-round Group 2, with Algeria and Chile having played the day before. With the outcome of that match already decided, a win by one or two goals for West Germany would result in both them and Austria qualifying at the expense of Algeria, who had defeated West Germany in the first game. West Germany took the lead after 10 minutes, after which the remaining 80 minutes was characterized by few serious attempts by either side to score.

But this time Fifa took no action

Both sides were accused of match-fixing, although FIFA ruled that neither team broke any rules.

In my opinion this is a less blatant case of unsporting behaviour (no deliberate own goals here this time). Clearly there is a threshold. I would be interested to know if Fifa's sanction use or decision making is different for World Cups than it is for smaller tournaments, but I have no idea. It certainly means that it gets a bigger Wikipedia page. It's also worth pointing out that 1982 was 36 years ago, football was different and Fifa was different.

Once again, the most important thing to understand is it's basically up to Fifa.

Interesting fact: This match is the reason why the final pair of group matches in international tournaments always start at the same time.

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    There was also this match, in which due to scoring rules, Barbados scored an own goal to get a tie. Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 15:49
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    @Acccumulation Yep, interesting match. Golden goal rules used to be different and weird. They forced a 90 minute match, but in order to then win that match same with a bigger goal diff. It's similar to the OP's question, but I didn't think enough to include.
    – Nathan
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 15:56

I doubt any team would purposely score goals against themselves as it is quite obvious and the team would be disqualified. But it is not impossible that they would purposely lose by simply not playing at their full potential, either to avoid strong teams or not to put too much stress on the players if they know they are already qualified.

It is also possible that the strongest teams would "select" which group they are affected to rather than being randomly dispatched (they have to be put in 8 different groups anyway) as Michel Platini confessed recently about the 1998 world cup (article in french).

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