Risk of Collusion: Will Groups of 3 Ruin the FIFA World Cup?

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Authors

Julien Guyon

Abstract

In 2026, the FIFA World Cup will for the first time gather 48 men’s national teams. It will consist of a group stage made of 16 groups of three, with the best two teams in each group advancing to the knockout stage. Using groups of three raises several fairness issues, including the risk of match fixing and schedule imbalance. In this article we examine the risk of collusion. The two teams who play the last game in the group know exactly what results will let them advance to the knockout stage.Risk of match fixing occurs when a result qualifies both of them at the expense of the third team of the group, and can seriously tarnish the tournament. We quantify how often this is expected to happen and explain how to build the match schedule so as to minimize the risk of collusion. We also quantify how the risk of collusion depends on competitive balance. Moreover, we show that for bidding draws during the group stage (a rule considered by FIFA) does not eliminate the risk of match fixing, and that, surprisingly, the 3-2-1-0 point system does not do a better job at decreasing the risk of collusion than the3-0 point system. Finally we describe alternate formats for a 48-team World Cup that would eliminate or strongly decrease the risk of collusion. A short version of this work has been published in The New York Times [25] and in Le Monde. The New York Times also published a follow-up article [26].