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Poland, Mexico’s World Cup Fate Almost Came Down to Yellow Cards

Group C at the World Cup has been chaos from start to finish, beginning with a Saudi Arabia upset over Argentina and now nearly ending with Poland advancing over Mexico thanks to the seldom-used fair-play system.

Previous group leader Poland ended up advancing in the tournament after a 2–0 loss to Argentina, edging Mexico on goal differential despite El Tri’s 2–1 win over Saudi Arabia. But up until Saudi Arabia’s stoppage-time goal, with gave Poland an edge on GD (0 to -1), the tiebreaker situation was going to be significantly more outrageous.

Had El Tri won 2–0, they would have tied Poland in points (4), goal differential (0) and goals scored (2), and all other tiebreaker rules would have been exhausted as well. Since Poland and Mexico would have been deadlocked in all criteria, the two squads would have been sent into rarely charted territory: effectively having their World Cup fate come down to discipline points for yellow and red cards.

The fair play system evaluates who advances based on which team has the fewest penalties against its opponents. It counts yellow cards (-1 point), indirect red cards (-3 points) and direct red cards (-4 points). In the 2022 tournament, Poland amassed -5 fair play points and Mexico notched -7, meaning Poland would have still advanced into the knockout stage had it not been for the late goal against Mexico. 

Mexico had two different opportunities to put themselves up by three goals, but both were disallowed after offside calls (and had Mexico won 3–0 it would have advanced outright). This is the first time since 1978 that Mexico will miss out on the knockout stage of a World Cup for which it has qualified. 

It wouldn’t have been the first time a group was decided by fair play. In 2018, Senegal was knocked out of the tournament after receiving two more yellow cards than Japan, which advanced in the tournament. 

Had the two squads been deadlocked in the fair play system, the FIFA Organizing Committee would have drawn lots to determine which team would advance. 

Poland will take on France on Sunday in the round of 16 at 10 a.m. ET, while Argentina advances to face Australia  at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday. The winner of the Argentina-Australia game will meet the winner of USA-Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

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