Sunday, October 8, 2017

8 October 2011 - Sometimes, It Helps To Read The Rules In Advance

On 8 October 2011, South Africa played to a scoreless draw with Sierra Leone, thinking the result qualified them for the African Cup of Nations. They were wrong.

It was the final match for both teams in Group G of the tournament's qualifying stage, with South Africa starting the day one point behind group leaders Niger, who were playing Egypt at the same time South Africa faced off against Sierra Leone.

With the latter two locked in a scoreless draw midway through the second half, South Africa received news that Niger had fallen behind Egypt by the score of 3-0. If the scores held, South Africa and Niger would finish level on points, but South Africa would have a goal differential of +2 to Niger's -2. Content to play for the draw, South African boss Pitso Mosimane made a late substitution, bringing on a midfielder in place of a striker. And, when the match ended 0-0, the South Africans celebrated the result with a dance and a lap of honor before their exultant fans.

What they failed to realize, however, was that goal differential did not serve as the tie-breaker. Instead, the rules of the tournament provided that teams level on points were to be ranked by their head-to-head record against each other. That metric favored Niger.

South Africa lodged a protest, claiming that goal differential should have been the deciding factor, but later dropped their appeal. Niger advanced to the Cup, where they were eliminated in the group stage after losing all three matches.

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