Why win or lose against Ghana, Bafana almost certainly still need a draw in Sudan

Safa president Danny Jordaan greets Percy Tau and the Bafana Bafana team during their team photo session at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on March 24 2021.
Safa president Danny Jordaan greets Percy Tau and the Bafana Bafana team during their team photo session at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on March 24 2021.
Image: Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images

Sudan’s Africa Cup of Nations win against Sao Tome and Principe has left three teams in Group C on nine points, and a complicated set of scenarios that could see any number of final outcomes as Bafana Bafana prepare to meet Ghana on Thursday evening.

Bizarrely, Sudan’s win has left Bafana’s game against Ghana at FNB Stadium (kickoff 6pm) perhaps meaningless from the South Africans’ perspective. Effectively, apart from a few complex scenarios involving a win by three clear goals against the Black Stars (which also does not guarantee qualification), Bafana can win or lose against Ghana — even by 20 goals — and a draw against Sudan in Khartoum on Sunday would still clinch, or be needed to clinch, qualification. 

That is because the Confederation of African Football (Caf) prefers the head-to-head ruling — with the results, then goal difference, then goals scored, then away goals, between the teams who are level decisive — where one or more teams end level on points.

If Bafana lose against Ghana, then draw in Sudan, then by virtue of SA’s 1-0 win at home to Sudan in the first round, SA will progress.

Bafana should still aim to beat Ghana, if only from a momentum and confidence perspective going into Sunday’s match in Khartoum — and there are scenarios where a win by three goals or more on Thursday evening allow SA to lose in Sudan on Sunday.

Sudan’s 2-0 win against Sao Tome on Wednesday means three teams in Group C are on nine points, and Sao Tome last on zero. Sudan now lead the (played five, +4 goal difference), Ghana are second (played four, and +4) and SA are third (played four and +3). The top two teams in each group qualify.

Here are some of the scenarios for SA given this situation (all assuming Ghana win at home in their last game against Sao Tome):

  • If Bafana beat Ghana by three clear goals or more, SA will be on 12 points, Ghana and Sudan on nine. If Bafana then lose by two goals (or more) in Sudan, that would leave all three teams on 12 points (assuming Ghana beat Sao Tome). SA would edge out Ghana on head-to-head, but be edged out by Sudan, and Ghana would edge out Sudan (from a 2-0 home win and 1-0 defeat away). Given head-to-head would not resolve the situation, goal difference would be the next factor. SA would be on +4 (or less), Sudan on +6 (or more), and Ghana better than their current +4, so Bafana would not qualify. (There are other goal difference scenarios, within this scenario — for example a bigger win to Bafana against Ghana, that would see a different outcome — but safer to draw in Sudan rather than rely on scientific calculator situations).
  • The perhaps crucial scenario is: if Bafana lose to Ghana — even 20-0 — a draw against Sudan would still see SA qualify for the Nations Cup. Ghana (12 points from beating Sao Tome) and Bafana (10 points) would qualify because SA would edge out Sudan (10 points) on head-to-head from a win at home and draw away.
  • Another scenario is: Bafana beat Ghana 3-0 to go to 12 points. Ghana beat Sao Tome to also go to 12 points, and Sudan beat SA 1-0 to go to 12 points. All the teams are on 12 points — SA then beat Ghana on head-to-head, Ghana beat Sudan, and Bafana and Sudan are locked on 1-1, the same home and away goals and goal difference in matches. So again, there is no resolution of the three-way tie by head-to-head. The next criteria is goal difference in the group. SA will be on +5, Sudan on +5, and for Ghana it will depend on their winning margin against Sao Tome. Then between Sudan and SA it goes to goals scored in the group — SA will be on 10 and Sudan on eight — so Bafana qualify.
  • If Bafana win by less than two goals against Ghana, only a win or draw in Sudan can see them qualify.
  • If SA draw against Ghana, Bafana will be on 10 points, and the Black Stars will beat Sao Tome to end on 13. Bafana will need a draw against Sudan (nine points), because a defeat would see the Sudanese go to 12.

There are more scenarios to consider, all of them made equally as complicated by Caf’s head-to-head ruling — which does raise the question: why not simply goal difference?

But, simply put, whether Bafana win, lose or draw against Ghana at FNB, a draw in Sudan will then ensure their qualification for a second successive Nations Cup.

For any readers willing and brave, or foolhardy, enough to run through some permutations themselves, these are Caf’s rules governing two or more teams finishing level on points. (Currently in Group C Ghana [played 4, 5:1 goal difference], Sudan [P5; 7:3] and SA [P4, 7:4] are on nine points).:

14.1 In case of equality between two teams at the end of the group matches, the teams will be ranked according to the following criteria in the order listed below:

14.1.1 The greatest number of points obtained in the matches between the two teams concerned;

14.1.2 The best goal difference in the matches between the two teams concerned;

14.1.3 The greatest number of away goals scored in the direct encounters between the two concerned teams;

14.1.4 The goal difference in all group matches;

14.1.5 The greatest number of goals scored in all group matches

14.1.6 A drawing of lots conducted by the organising committee

14.2

In case of equality between more than two teams at the end of the group matches, the teams will be ranked according to the following criteria in the order listed below:

14.2.1 the greatest number of points obtained in the matches between the teams concerned;

14.2.2 the best goal difference in the matches between the teams concerned;

14.2.3 the greatest number of goals scored in the matches between the teams concerned;

14.2.4 the greatest number of away goals scored in the matches between the concerned teams;

14.2.5 If after applying criteria 14.2.1 to 14.2.4, two teams are still tied, 14.2.1 to 14.2.4 criteria are again applied to matches played between the two teams in question to determine the final ranking of the two teams. If this procedure does not allow separating them, the criteria listed from 14.2.6 to 14.2.9 are applied in the indicated order;

14.2.6 the goal difference in all group matches;

14.2.7 the greatest number of goals scored in all group matches;

14.2.8 the greatest number of away goals scored in all group matches;

14.2.9 a drawing of lots conducted by the organising committee.


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