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Tie-breaker differences leave fans in dark in biggest of tournaments

GDANSK, Poland -- So here's a proposal to FIFA and UEFA: Let's fix this conflicting tie-breaker situation right now. Too many fans (and media) around the world are confused by the varying group tie-breaking criteria at your biggest tournaments, the European Championship and the World Cup, and it's harming one of the most basic elements of the sport: Watching a game and knowing who's advancing and who's not.

Consider: If Euro 2012 was the World Cup, Russia would have advanced to the knockout rounds, and Greece would now be out. But UEFA has different tie-breaker rules, and so Greece is alive and Russia is out.

Or consider: Entering Monday's games, a 2-2 tie between Spain and Croatia would have put Italy out of Euro 2012 no matter how many goals Italy might have scored to beat Ireland and finish tied on five points with the Spanish and Croats. But if this was the World Cup, Italy could still go through on group goal-differential in such a scenario. And if this was the World Cup, we wouldn't have witnessed the embarrassing (but widespread) questions of whether classy Spain would entertain a mutually beneficial tie with Croatia at Italy's expense.

No reasonable person would suggest that the World Cup champs would pre-arrange a fix with Croatia, but it is reasonable to wonder how Spain and Croatia might have played if the score got to 2-2. And that's a shame that is UEFA's fault, not the fault of any team.

How are World Cup and Euro tie-breakers different? In essence, the World Cup criteria prioritize group goal-differential before head-to-head performance, while Euro 2012 is the other way around. Both the World Cup and Euro 2012 tie-breaker systems have their merits and their failings, but the chief problem in my mind is the confusion among fans that results from having two different sets of criteria. So here are the criteria I would propose that both organizations adopt for their signature tournaments:

• In the event two teams are tied on points at the end of the group stage, head-to-head performance (the current UEFA way) should be prioritized before group performance (goal-differential, goals scored, etc.).

• In the event three or four teams are tied on points at the end of the group stage, group performance (goal-differential, goals scored, etc.) -- i.e., the current FIFA way -- should be prioritized before the so-called head-to-head "mini-league" performance (the current UEFA way), in which results against the non-tied team are thrown out.

Why should head-to-head performance be prioritized when two teams are tied? Well, that seems sort of obvious, right? (Nice job, UEFA!)

And why should overall group performance take priority when three or four teams are tied? (Nice job, FIFA!) One, it would prevent questions over two teams like Spain and Croatia playing to a mutually beneficial tie at Italy's expense, which is exactly what happened to Italy when Denmark and Sweden played to a 2-2 tie in Euro 2004, eliminating the Italians. And two, overall group performance makes sense at a major tournament like the World Cup or Euro when there are no truly terrible teams (like San Marino) who could produce 8-0 or 10-0 losses. The mini-league way might make sense in qualifying groups with San Marinos, but not at the big finals tournament itself.

Most of all, the world's soccer fans deserve to have uniformity in the tournaments that hundreds of millions of people watch all over the planet. UEFA and FIFA get it partly right, but it's time they got it all right.

• Dumb move of the week goes to UEFA, which fined Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner nearly $126,000 Monday and suspended him for one World Cup qualifier for a stunt in which he celebrated a goal by pulling up his shirt to reveal an advertisement on his underwear. I can understand the market-driven reasoning for UEFA's heavy fine, but it's completely tone-deaf for UEFA to fine Bendtner so much more than the fines UEFA has given to national associations for incidents involving racism and crowd violence. What kind of message is UEFA sending? That protecting its sponsors is more important than taking a real stand against racism and violence. And that's embarrassing.

• Huge props to Chris Kurylowicz, Fox Soccer's talented jack-of-all-trades, who has now driven our four-man minivan more than 2,600 miles around Poland in the last two weeks. Chris is hilarious, and he also has a good background in TV production, so I have to apologize for ID'ing him as a "fixer/driver" during the piece I wrote the other day. (It got republished on Poland's most popular web site, and his friends started giving him stick for being a "driver.")

"Fixer" is a pretty good way to describe how important he has been to us, however, so in homage to the Fixer played by Harvey Keitel in *Pulp Fiction*, we will henceforth call my man Chris (The Wolf) Kurylowicz.

Chris is a non-stop source of comedy. Take the conversation we had while driving into Gdansk yesterday:

Chris: "My favorite place is close by. It's called Hel."

Me: "You're favorite place is called Hell, Chris?"

Chris: "Yes, Hel. It's very pretty."

Fox Soccer's Keith Costigan: "I'll bet it's really hot there."

I immediately looked up this place on Google maps, and sure enough, there's a place called Hel not far from here, on a gorgeous peninsula jutting out into the Baltic Sea. We might have to make a side trip there just I can have a dateline on a story like this one:

HEL, Poland -- Welcome to Hel.

• Euro 2012 Pants Update. I'm now on Day 10 of wearing the same jeans after stupidly forgetting to pack any others when I left New York City on June 9. Starting to wonder if there are diminishing returns on declaring this information -- or if I should own it with pride. (Though keep in mind, I smell better than 99 percent of the other journos here.)

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