With the possibility that Iran and Nigeria might have to be separated by the drawing of lots, we take a look at some instances of chance determining the outcome of past games ...
Post-Olympics tournament, 1928
Before the World Cup, the only real international football tournament was at the Olympics, of which Great Britain won the first four (two as basically club sides under the British flag), while Uruguay waltzed away with the top prize in 1924 and 1928, just as they did with the first official FIFA jamboree in 1930.
After the 1928 games, FIFA held a "consolation tournament" for a few of the unlucky teams that didn't strike gold.
If this whole affair wasn't bizarre enough, hosts Netherlands faced Chile in the final and the visitors were impudent enough to score an 89th-minute equaliser to claim a 2-2 draw, which obviously then meant there was a requirement to decide who had won this invented, phony trophy. With the concept of the penalty shootout still some years away and nobody really with the inclination to stage a replay, the drawing of lots was employed -- and would you believe it, the Dutch hosts came up trumps. However, possibly out of embarrassment about this whole farcical hoopla or alternatively plain-old good sportsmanship, they graciously awarded the cup to Chile; presumably accompanied by a patronising pat on the head.
- Final group games: All the possible permutations
Turkey vs. Spain, 1954
No team has technically been eliminated from the World Cup via the drawing of lots as yet. However, the closest a team has come is during qualification for the 1954 tournament, when such were the vagaries and apparent randomness of FIFA's organisation, some groups contained only two teams; one of which featured Spain and Turkey. They each won once (Spain 4-1, Turkey 1-0), and the Spanish had scored more goals and probably deserved to go through, but it was decreed that a playoff on neutral grounds should take place instead.
The game in Rome went to extra time but still the teams could not be separated, with the game ending in a 2-2 draw. It was then decided that lots should be drawn to decide who qualified for the finals in Switzerland, a solemn and onerous task that was entrusted to a young man named Luigi Franco Gemma, a 14-year-old whose father worked at the stadium. Young Luigi was blindfolded, asked to pick two balls from a hat and chose Turkey, who would reward fate by going out in the first round of the finals in another playoff to eventual winners West Germany.
Netherlands vs. Ireland, 1990
The other time the drawing of lots has been used at the World Cup was in 1990, when one of the most turgid groups in tournament history managed to produce just one win and seven goals over six games. England finished top but in second and third were Ireland and Netherlands, who finished with identical records of three points, two goals scored and two goals conceded. Both sides were through because that year the top two teams in each group plus the best four third-place finishers qualified for the knockout rounds.
For the purposes of who they would play next, it had to be decided who would finish in which place.
Enter Sepp Blatter -- at that stage FIFA's No. 2 -- who 15 minutes after the final whistle arranged a typically elaborate (needlessly so, one might argue) ceremony in Rome to decide the positions, as The New York Times explains: "He put a slip of paper bearing each team's name into each of two orange plastic balls, which he placed in a goldfish bowl. Another two yellow balls were marked 2 and 3 and placed in another goldfish bowl. He then asked one of the blue-uniformed World Cup hostesses to pull a ball from each bowl."
Ireland got lucky and it was far from meaningless since they progressed to face Romania, who they defeated on penalties, while the Dutch had to play West Germany in Milan and were beaten. Just think -- if it wasn't for the drawing of lots, we might have been denied the sight of Frank Rijkaard expectorating into Rudi Voller's mullet.
Italy vs. the USSR, 1968
Of course, there is little material difference between the drawing of lots and the coin toss -- they are merely two slightly different ways of allowing random chance to determine an outcome. The coin toss has been used on plenty of occasions to decide something more than the kickoff or who uses the home dressing room, but by far the most important and high-profile occurrence was the semifinal of the 1968 European Championships.
Italy and the USSR could not be split despite 120 minutes of play -- the game ending 0-0 after extra time -- so with the trusty old penalty shootout not introduced until two years later, the rules stated a coin toss would determine the victors. The match officials scuttled off pretty quickly, not wanting to be the ones to decide such a huge game in such a silly way, so it fell to a Senor Pujols, the UEFA official on duty, to do the honours.
After some argument about the currency of coin used (a peseta, a ruble and a dollar were all apparently rejected), Pujols flipped a Dutch guilder into the air; Soviet captain Albert Shesternyov called heads but it came down tails, sending Italy through to the final. Rumour has it that was actually the second attempt at the toss after the first coin had disappeared under a grate. Later, one of the match officials supposedly went to recover the original coin, which lay there with the head staring straight upwards. On such fine and random margins, these things are decided.
Liverpool vs. Cologne, 1965
A few years earlier and in only marginally less crucial circumstances, there was another victim of the fateful coin toss. The 1964-65 European Cup had actually seen a few of these random deciders, with Anderlecht vs. Bologna and Dukla Prague vs. Gornik Zabrze both decided with rotating currency; the former team "prevailing" on both occasions.
Liverpool were drawn against Cologne in the quarterfinal stage but both legs of the original tie ended in goalless stalemates, necessitating a playoff on the neutral ground of Amsterdam. Liverpool took a 2-0 lead through Ian St John and Roger Hunt but the German side came back to level things at 2-2, the score at which the game would end. A coin toss was thus employed, which Liverpool captain Ron Yeats would call correctly, sending them through to the semifinal, where they would be eliminated by eventual winners Inter Milan.