Are World Cup groups decided by goal difference or head-to-head? FIFA rules explained

Several teams likely to finish on level points in Qatar. UEFA Champions League groups decided on head-to-head but is World Cup different?

The second round of group stages fixtures is underway at the World Cup and we’re beginning to get a clearer picture of which teams will be making it to the knockout stages and who will not.

Host nation Qatar became the first country to be officially eliminated following their 3-1 defeat to Senegal on Friday and more teams could also have their hopes ended before their third and final match has even kicked off. In England and Wales’ group (Group B) there are already so many permutations that could see any of the four teams go through.

Once the group stages are finished, it’s likely that some groups will see two teams level on points but what is important is how it is then decided which team will finish above the other in the final table. Here is what you need to know about how that is decided and whether it is by goal difference or head-to-head record:

Are World Cup groups decided by goal difference or head-to-head?

If two teams finish on the same number of points in their group at the end of all three rounds of fixtures then the final placings are decided first by goal difference. This differs to competitions such as the UEFA Champions League where groups are decided first on head-to-head record between two sides. In that particular competition the rule is more plausible as sides face each other twice in the group stage rather than once like at the World Cup. Here is the order of the criteria for deciding the final league table positions in the World Cup groups:

  1. Points obtained in all group matches
  2. Goal difference in all group matches
  3. Number of goals scored in all group matches
  4. Points obtained in the matches played between the teams in question
  5. Goal difference in the matches played between the teams in question
  6. Number of goals scored in the matches played between the teams in question
  7. Fair play points in all group matches
  8. Drawing of lots

When are the final World Cup group stage matches and when do the knockout rounds begin?

The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off on November 20 and the group stage matches will come to an end on Friday, December 2. The final round of group stage matches comes from Group G and Group H and are: Serbia vs Switzerland, Cameroon vs Brazil, Ghana vs Uruguay and South Korea vs Portugal.

There will be no break in play between the group stage and the first knockout round and the Last 16 fixtures will kick off on Saturday, December 3 with the winners of Group A facing the runners-up from Group B and then the winners of Group C facing the runners-up of Group D.

Here is the full list of dates for each round of fixtures at the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals:

  • Group Stage - November 20 to December 2
  • First Knockout Round - December 3 to December 6
  • Quarter Finals - December 9 and December 10
  • Semi Finals - December 13 and December 14
  • Third Place Play-Off - December 17
  • Final - December 18