Tell that to the South African soccer team.
With one game to go in qualifying for the 2012 African Nations Cup last weekend, the standings for Group G looked like this (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw):
In the final games, played simultaneously, Egypt hosted Niger and South Africa hosted Sierra Leone.
Word soon filtered back to South Africa that Egypt was beating Niger handily (they went on to win, 3-0). So here's your quiz question: what does South Africa need to do to win the group and advance to the Cup finals?
Well, beating Sierra Leone is clearly enough. That would give South Africa 11 points to Niger's 9 and Sierra Leone's 8. What about a draw? That would leave Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone with 9 points, so I guess we better check what the tie breaker rules are.
But South Africa didn't check.
The team's coach, Pitso Mosimane, just assumed that goal difference would break ties. If so, a draw with Sierra Leone would leave the three teams' goal differences at South Africa +2, Sierra Leone 0 and Niger, thanks to its 3-0 loss, at -2. Mosimane ordered his players to play defensively and protect a 0-0 draw. He even pulled out a striker for a midfielder. When the game did end 0-0, the team celebrated their "qualification."
Mosimane was wrong. The tie breaker was not goal difference, but head to head record among the tied teams. Niger was 2-2 against South Africa and Sierra Leone, for 6 points, while the other two teams were 1-1-2, for 5 points. Niger won the group and will advance to the Nations Cup.
Whether goal difference or head-to-head is a better way to break ties in a four-team group is a question for another day. But there is clearly not one set method. The World Cup uses goal difference; the Champions League uses head-to-head. You need to know the rules before you play the games.
And how did the South African federation react to their debacle? With embarrassment, shame and regret? Nope. They are appealing to get a spot in the finals. "We think we have a case," South Africa's football chief executive said.
Actually, you don't have a case. But as a consolation prize, we award you a one year's subscription to First Round Bye. Please read it.