The next edition of international football’s extravaganza is just over a year away and teams from all 211 FIFA nations are already busy competing for a place in the tournament. For those countries who qualify, their first ambition will be to make it out of the group stages and into the knockout rounds, where the drama really begins!
The process of whittling down the qualifying teams to find the world champion has changed markedly over 88 years of World Cup history. The first World Cup, in 1930, featured only 13 teams, so the knockout rounds consisted of two semi-finals and a final. In 1938, the whole tournament was run on a knockout basis, but in the next World Cup, in 1950, and in many subsequent editions, there was no knockout round.
But while knockout football can sometimes deliver unpredictable or even unfair results, there is no doubt that it is compelling to watch, and since 1998, the World Cup has had a consistent knockout structure, with 16 teams progressing to the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.
At the 2018 World Cup, the knockout stage will begin with the first of the round of 16 games on 30th June in the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, and conclude with the final in the 81,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 15th July. Eight stadiums will be used for the knockout rounds, but for the semi-finals, final and the third-place play-off, only the two largest venues – the Luzhniki, and the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg – will be used.
The knockout rounds at the World Cup are designed to give the teams that performed strongly in the group stages a relatively easy draw, as group winners will be paired with group runners-up in the round of 16. Of course, that doesn’t always work out and if a minor team top their group, as happened with Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup, this carefully designed arrangement can be thrown into chaos!
In theory, once the draw for the group stages has been made in December 2017, it will be possible to plot your team’s route to the final, although things don’t always work out as planned, and unlikely pairings and surprises are all part of the fun of the knockout rounds.
Another familiar element in the knockout rounds is the potential for extra time and penalty shoot-outs. The question of how to settle drawn knockout games took many decades to solve. Extra time was adopted as one way of forcing a result, but if this failed to separate the teams, games had to be replayed, which led to scheduling problems and exhausted players.
Eventually the penalty shoot-out was introduced, and was used for the first time in the 1982 World Cup semi-final. Since then, penalties have become an integral part of the drama of the latter stages at the World Cup. The last five tournaments have produced an average of three penalty shoot-outs – including in the 2006 final – so we can expect that the knockout rounds of the 2018 World Cup will see plenty of nail-biting drama and several players becoming instant heroes or villains.