Eurosport’s international football coverage, as unique as it remains in the field of sports broadcasting and run on a shoestring budget, remains excellent. And this year’s ACN coverage has been as comprehensive and well-informed as ever. But, as Groups B and D came to their conclusions, well… oops. The “head-to-head” rule is increasingly, if not yet extensively, used in world football as the first method of separating teams level on points at the end of a group or league, replacing goal difference, goals scored or – for those of us old enough to remember it –  goal average. The most high-profile competition to do so is Spain’s La Liga; hence the extra significance of Real Madrid/Barcelona games (like they needed more of an edge). The rule itself states that:

“If two or more teams end…with the same number of points, their ranking is determined by the following criteria: points earned in the matches between the teams concerned; goal difference in the matches between the teams concerned; number of goals scored in the matches between the teams concerned; goal difference in all group matches; number of goals scored in all group matches.”

Thereafter, it comes down to red and yellow cards or drawing lots, by which time you might be forgiven for thinking that the “teams concerned” had planned things all along just to be difficult. With two teams, the rule is simplicity itself, in effect a two-legged tie between them, or just the one match in finals. And the African Cup of Nations has used “head-to-head” results since 2006. But this year’s qualifying competition highlighted the complications if three teams had the same number of points. Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone finished their group tied on nine points, with the fourth team, the then-reigning champions Egypt, on five. Egypt were not a “team concerned” and their results were discounted, which left Niger on six points and South Africa and Sierra Leone on five. So Niger qualified by a point. South Africa appealed, based on goal difference being “the traditional way of determining a log standing.” But tradition, in this instance, was irrelevant.

The situation wasn’t new to finals tournaments, either. In 2010, Zambia, Cameroon and Gabon all finished level on points at the end of a group of statistical freaks. They all beat each other and all drew with Tunisia, who thus finished as the only unbeaten team in the group…and bottom of it. Because of these draws, discounting the results against Tunisia left the sides level. They were level on goal difference too, as each relevant game was won by one goal. However, Zambia’s five goals and Cameroon’s four goals both trumped Gabon’s two goals. As it transpired, “the traditional way of determining log standing” would also have eliminated Gabon. But otherwise this group was one for the textbook on how involved, if not that complicated, such matters could get.

Group B wasn’t down to “head-to-head” at all, as Angola and Sudan, the two teams vying for second place behind Cote D’Ivoire, drew their match 2-2. The “traditional way” would determine their “log standings.” And even then, only if Angola lost to Cote D’Ivoire and Sudan beat Burkina Faso – the only way the sides could finish level on points. However, Eurosport commentators for Sudan’s match, Tim Caple and Leroy Rosenior, had grabbed the mistaken belief that they needed to beat Burkina Faso by three goals to reach the quarter-finals and they wouldn’t let go. “They need to rack up three goals,” Rosenior began. And “they need two more goals,” he added after Sudan scored, an error on which he continued to base his whole analysis, even when Cote D’Ivoire went 2-0 up on Angola and put Sudan ahead on goal difference. “They’ve obviously got the message from the touchline,” he noted with ten minutes left, as the Sudanese added a microbe of urgency to taking their (usually foul) throw-ins. “Both sides are almost going for it, in a sense,” he added. No, me neither.

Wayne Boyce, commentating on Angola’s game, was on top of the arithmetic and explained the situation with welcome clarity, until he suggested, just after half-time, that “qualification is not in (Angola’s) hands if Sudan score again.”  Of course, qualification was in Angola’s hands throughout, which Boyce clean forgot. If Angola drew, they’d have enough points and Sudan could, in the words of the chant “score when they want” and still not qualify. Sudan entered stoppage time 2-0 up. With Angola losing by the same score, both sides had four points and Sudan the better goal difference by two goals. But the urgency with which Caple yelled “he’s missed it”, as Sudan’s keeper flew past one to concede a goal, suggested that he thought something significant had happened.

A Burkinabe equaliser would have left Sudan on three points to Angola’s four. But this would have necessitated time travel as well as vastly-improved service to their front men. So Sudan were safe, which only dawned on Caple as they celebrated. Rosenior, meanwhile, was silent, possibly lying down in a darkened room. Technically, all four teams in Group D could qualify. Mali, Guinea and Botswana could finish with three points or, more likely, Ghana, Guinea and Mali could finish with six. None of this, however, occurred to John Roder or Matt Jackson, working on Guinea vs Ghana. For them, Ghana were all-but-through, Botswana all-but-out, barring a nine-goal victory, and the only relevant “head-to-head” was Mali’s spawny 1-0 win over Guinea. Still, Jackson was mentally prepared for a tough night, suggesting a degree in “quadratic equations” might be needed; and Roder took time and care to explain some of the possible scenarios, which inspired more confidence – unwisely, as it turned out. When Botswana took the lead against Mali, shortly after half-time, Guinea were drawing 1-1 and were in second place on good old-fashioned points. Even if Guinea lost and Botswana held on, the “head-to-head” calculations were straightforward. Guinea, Mali and Botswana would be on three points, having beaten each other and lost to Ghana. But Guinea’s thumping 6-1 win over Botswana would sort out the goal difference.

When Mali equalised, to rejoin Guinea on four points, it wasn’t much more complicated. Their win over Guinea would be decisive. The table would read Ghana 7, Mali 4, Guinea 4. “Surely Mali are through, now,” noted Loder, with misplaced confidence, when Mali scored again. A Guinea win would scupper that. And although Guinea were down to ten men by then, Ghana had gone to sleep. For now, though, it was Ghana 7, Mali 6, Guinea 4. An injury to Guinea’s goalkeeper gave Loder and Jackson an opportunity to get the proverbial abacus out (though with Eurosport’s budget, it might have been an actual one). But this didn’t seem to help. “A Botswana goal would make all the difference, that would be a real twist,” Loder claimed. No, it wouldn’t. The table would read Ghana 7, Mali 4, Guinea 4. Again. And Mali 1 Guinea 0 would be the decision-maker. Meanwhile, at Mali/Botswana, Wayne Boyce noted: “If Guinea were to score again, Ghana, Guinea and Mali would be together in the table, which…would be very interesting.” “Does that mean you don’t know?” ventured Boyce’s co-commentator Stewart Robson, correctly.

In the closing stages, Mali looked comfortable, while nothing was happening between soporific Ghana and numerically-challenged Guinea. But Loder, possibly lulled into a false sense of security, declared: “Even if Guinea score, they’d need a goal from Botswana to help them out.” He could barely have been more wrong. The table would then read Ghana 6, Guinea 6, Mali 6. The three sides would have beaten each other, bringing goal difference into play, making the crucial match Mali’s 2-0 loss to Ghana. With one-goal margins in the other relevant games, Mali would be out. This dawned on Jackson as Mali seemed reluctant to celebrate their win, choosing instead to watch stoppage time in Guinea’s match. Jackson, watching Eurosport’s live feed of the Malians, wondered “why they looked so worried.”

“What would that do to Ghana?” he added, contemplating a second Guinea goal. “It’s what we’ve discounted,” he concluded, correctly. The goal never came. And, to be honest, they’d still be playing now and it would still be 1-1. Of course, under the “traditional way of determining a log standing,” Guinea would have qualified. And these anomalies lead to most condemnation of the “head-to-head” rule. But there is logic of sorts here, as the rule simply places more importance on the match between the tied teams than their ability to put goals past others. That, though, is an argument for another article. It remains desperately disappointing that professional broadcasters could make, and repeat, such errors. I know match commentary and analysis takes huge concentration – it is not at all as easy as it looks or sounds. But this was just basic arithmetic; a lot of sums, yes, but none bigger than 2+2.  It was the issue on which viewers needed most guidance. And it was fundamental to the drama of the evening, certainly more dramatic than the actual football. It needed the admirable care and attention Eurosport commentators continue to invest in other parts of their work. And it didn’t get it. Oops, indeed.

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