From soccer fields to negotiation tables: What the Euro 2024’s tiebreaker rules can teach us about business negotiations and vice versa

July 3, 2024
posted in
written by Anna-Sophia Tenkleve

I am by no means a football expert. In fact, you could probably fit my knowledge of the sport on the back of a cereal box. However, when I came across an article about the current European Championship (Euro 2024), my curiosity was piqued. The article focused on the third-placed teams in each group, and the unique method used to determine which of them advance to the knockout stages. Intriguingly, this method resonated with something very familiar to me – a negotiation design that my colleagues and I frequently create for our clients. This revelation led me to draw some fascinating parallels between football and business strategy, particularly in terms of tiebreaker rules.

The battle of the third-placed teams

In 2016, the European Championship expanded to include 24 teams, divided into six groups of four. This expansion introduced a conundrum: with the newly added round of 16 (the first knock-out stage, “Achtelfinale”), the traditional approach, where the top two teams from each group advance, was no longer sufficient. To solve this, four of the six third-placed teams also had to move forward, creating the need for detailed tiebreaker rules to rank these teams.

The ranking of third-placed teams in the Euro 2024 involves a series of criteria: points, goal difference, number of goals scored, fair play score (a criterion that transcends mere athletic performance), and finally, the overall ranking in the qualification rounds. This step-by-step process to resolve ties mirrors the negotiation designs we employ in business. For example, in a negotiation, the situation may arise where multiple parties are tied after the negotiation, and yet a clear winner still needs to be determined.

Football’s tiebreaker criteria

The Euro 2024 tiebreaker rules for third-placed teams follows a structured approach:

  1. Points: The most straightforward criterion.
  2. Goal Difference: Encourages teams to score more and concede fewer goals.
  3. Number of Wins: Rewards consistency and success.
  4. Fair Play Score: Adds a layer of sportsmanship and discipline.
  5. Overall Ranking in Qualifiers: Considers the teams’ performance over a longer period.

This system not only ranks the teams but also sets clear incentives. Winning is better than drawing, which is better than losing. Scoring more goals is advantageous, even in a one-sided match. This incentivises teams to continue pushing for goals, ensuring entertaining and competitive matches. Playing fair not only avoids the penalties of red and yellow cards but is also rewarded in this tiebreaker rule and can result in the game not ending after the group stage. It introduces a behavioural incentive, rewarding teams for maintaining discipline and sportsmanship.

The need for tiebreaker rules in business negotiations

In negotiation scenarios, tiebreaker rules become essential when two or more parties achieve the same result after the negotiation. For instance, if two suppliers accept the same price in an auction, a tiebreaker is needed to decide who wins the contract. A well-crafted tiebreaker rule will break the deadlock with additional actions or information, ultimately determining the winner. The rules need to:

  • Be easy, fair and transparent to decide what happens in case of a tie e.g. to decide who wins
  • Ensure that any possible tie situation is anticipated (there cannot be any loose ends) and solve the tie in finite time
  • Be set correctly, so that tie breaker rules can act as powerful incentives prior to the tie actually happening and positively impact parties’ behaviour.

It is therefore important that all parties know and fully understand the rules of the tiebreaker before the interaction (the negotiation, the game, …) starts, because it will influence the actions of the parties, and incentives can then fully unfold.

I also used various tiebreakers in my last negotiations. In a business context, there are several variations possible. For example, parties can be asked to update their offer again and submit a new final offer, in which case the party with the better offer is the ultimate winner. It is also possible to include the (ranked) behaviour of the parties regarding the clarification of overarching topics. There are many conceivable possibilities, depending on the setting and the desired incentives.

When football and business negotiations play by the same playbook

It becomes clear that the tiebreaker rules in the Euro 24 are very similar to those we know from business negotiations. They must fulfil the same three principles: 1. easy, fair and transparent, 2. exhaustive and unambiguous, 3. set the right incentives. And this analogy would also apply to any other situation in which a tie can occur.

In both football and business negotiations, tiebreaker rules are necessary, and additionally they shape behaviour by setting incentives. In the Euro 2024, teams are encouraged to play fair, score as many goals as possible, and strive for wins. In business, similar rules will encourage business partners to perform at their best and focus on the right things.

Why should we care about the third-placed teams and tiebreakers?

Initially, these tiebreaker rules might seem trivial. But we have learned firstly that we need them, secondly how they should be designed, and thirdly that we can use them to our advantage.

Above all, tiebreaker rules can have a major impact. The story of Portugal in the Euro 2016, who advanced as the third-best third-placed team and went on to win the championship, illustrates their significance. The underdogs, often overlooked, can make a profound impact. Similarly, in business, understanding and leveraging tiebreaker rules can turn a seemingly minor advantage into a game-changing victory.

As the Euro 2024 unfolds, the tiebreaker rules for third-placed teams provide not only a fair method to advance in the tournament, but also a fascinating study in strategic thinking. By understanding how to craft tiebreaker rules that incentivise desired behaviours, we can navigate complex situations like negotiations with greater confidence and success. So, the next time you watch a football match, remember: the strategies on the field might just be the playbook you need in your next big negotiation… or at the very least, provide inspiration.