[MY VIEW] Rampant, near-hysterical promotion is a staple of ESPN's philosophy, yet it came up short with its World Cup slogan, "One Game Changes Everything." Nice try, guys, but as the first day of group finales vividly showed on Tuesday, one goalchanges everything.
By virtue of beating Greece, 2-0, in its opener on June 12, South Korea took the field Tuesday with the same goal difference as Greece at minus-one, but with an extra goal scored as well as conceded.
South Korea also held a one-goal edge on Nigeria (minus-two), a fact that ESPN announcers Derek Rae and Ally McCoist reminded viewers several times as the final minutes of the Nigeria-South Korea game unfolded with the score tied, 2-2.
Had Nigeria scored another goal to win, 3-2, it would have advanced out of a three-way tie of teams tied with three points, since Greece’s 2-0 loss to Argentina left the Greeks with a goal difference of minus-three. When play began, all three teams were in the hunt, and Greece needed only a tie and a Nigeria win to advance.
In the first half, with Nigeria leading, 1-0, and Greece tied with Argentina, 0-0, the Greeks were into the round of 16, a point ahead of both Nigeria and South Korea. Down to minus-two, South Korea needed a tying goal to re-tie Greece on points, four, and edge ahead on goals scored, since both teams had started the day with a goal difference of minus-one.
Greece taking the lead against Argentina would have loaded enormous pressure on South Korea, but that’s not the way Coach Otto Rehhagel does things. The fortunes and philosophies of each team changed with each goal; unfortunately for Greece, once it fell behind in its match with Argentina, it also lost ground on goal difference to South Korea, which rallied to take a 2-1 lead before settling for the 2-2 tie.
As Group B turned out, South Korea’s tie gave it four points, one more than Greece, so the goal difference didn’t factor into the final standings. Yet South Korea’s attacking ability not only brought it back from a 1-0 deficit to get that point against Nigeria, it mitigated somewhat a 4-1 thrashing by Argentina.
Three-goal losses, as South Africa discovered, are usually terminal for teams hoping to advance in the World Cup, but the South Koreans – who finished group play with five goals -– earned a just reward for knowing the value of scoring goals.
By scoring its first goal to tie Nigeria, 1-1, South Korea’s advantage in goals scored put pressure on Greece to try and beat Argentina rather than holding on to a 0-0 tie. At this point, though both Greece and South Korea had four points and a goal difference of minus-one, South Korea held the next tiebreaker, goals scored.
Goals also came into play on the final day of Group A. South Africa and France, with only one point apiece, needed to win big and for second-place Mexico (four points) to lose its game against group leader Argentina.
When South Africa went up, 2-0, on France and Mexico conceded a goal to Uruguay, a stunning swoop by the Bafana Bafana loomed, and throughout the country fans clustered around TV sets to cheer and sing and dance and hope.
The South Africans, though, having lost their second game to Uruguay, 3-0, started the day at minus-three, well behind Mexico’s plus-two, and needed more goals – either scored by them or conceded by Mexico – to edge into second place.
The slim hopes ebbed away when Florent Malouda tapped home a Franck Ribery square ball, and Mexico held out without conceding another goal to take second place on goal difference, plus-one to minus-two.
The Americans take the field Wednesday against Algeria with two points and a zero goal difference but with more goals scored, three, than England’s one.
Beating Algeria by any score will assure the USA of a spot in the second round, and England has the same motivation to win as it plays group leader Slovenia (four points and a plus-one goal difference).
Algeria (one point, minus-one) can also sneak into second by beating the USA if England beats Slovenia by more than -- you guessed it -- one goal.
If both the USA and England tie their games to finish tied with three points, the Americans win second place on the goals-scored tiebreaker, unless England scored three more goals than the Americans. A 2-2 England tie and 0-0 U.S. tie would leave the teams knotted up on points, goal difference, goals scored, and head-to-head. What’s next?
The final tiebreaker is the dreaded drawing of lots, of which neither team has any control. Supposedly. (Penalties at dawn would make for much better television, but there's no proviso for it.)
FIFA’s use of goal difference as the first tiebreaker rather than head-to-head results is occasionally criticized, but this format ranks teams in different categories by their performance in all three games, not just one. It also gives teams a better chance to rectify a poor game or one tainted by, shall we say, curious refereeing decisions.
Algeria has yet to score a goal at the World Cup, but could knock out the USA and edge into the second round by netting just one.
A 1-0 U.S. victory could win the group. Just one goal could change everything.