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Almost thirty years ago, a rather unremarkable soccer match in an unremarkable tournament became the stuff of legend.
Had it not been for a confluence of events and rules that all came together at one point in one game, it never would have happened.
The result was something totally ridiculous that had never happened before or since.
Learn more about the 1994 match between Grenada and Barbados, and the dumbest game in history, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
When I say that this was the dumbest game in history, I am not referring to the players or the coaches. In fact, as you’ll soon see, they were extremely rational and logical in what they ended up doing.
To understand the absurd events which took place, it is necessary to know the backstory of what led up to it.
The event in question was the 1994 Caribbean Cup tournament. The annual soccer/football competition of the nations involved in the Caribbean Football Union.
At the time, FIFA, the association that governs international football, was experimenting with rules for their various regional tournaments.
For this tournament, they had some unique stipulations They don’t sound strange at first glance, but the implications of the rules turned out to be absurd.
The first rule was that there were to be no ties in any of the early-stage matches. This is not the norm for FIFA sanctions tournaments, but it isn’t crazy either. Knockout games never end in ties, so this was just an extension of that.
That other unique rule was called the golden goal. To discourage teams from playing for a tie and going to a shootout, any goal which was scored in extended time, which is the time after the regulation time is over if there is a tie, would be worth two goals and the game would end.
This golden goal in extra time, being worth two goals, is the key to this entire story.
This is important because, in the event that tie-breakers were necessary for the tournament, goal differential would be used.
So far, none of this sounds crazy. Different, perhaps, but it isn’t something that strikes you as off-the-wall bonkers.
The lower-ranked teams in the Caribbean Football Union had to earn their way into the main tournament. So there were five different groups. Group one consisted of three countries: Grenada, Barbados, and Costa Rica.
Only one team from the group would advance to the next round.
Because there were three teams in the group, each team would play every other team.
In the first match, Costa Rica beat Barbados by a score of 1-0.
In the second match, Grenada beat Costa Rica by a score of 2-0.
This set up a final match between Barbados and Grenada.
If Grenada won the match, they would advance to the next round.
If Barbados beat Grenada, each team would have one win apiece, and the tiebreaker would be goal differential.
If there were a tie in goal differential, then the next tiebreaker would be the head-to-head winner of the match.
So for Barbados to advance, they would have to win by two goals. This would tie Grenada on goal differential and give them the head-to-head tiebreaker.
If Grenada lost by only one goal, they would still advance, having a better goal differential.
The match was held on January 27, 1994, at the Barbados National Stadium.
Barbados took care of business throughout the match and dominated Grenada.
Late in the game, they had the 2-0 lead that they needed to advance to the next round.
However, at the 83-minute mark, Grenada scored. As far as Grenada was concerned, even though they were down 2-1, this was a good as a winning goal.
For the next four minutes, Barbados played aggressively and tried to score again but had no luck.
It was at the 87-minute mark when this match earned the distinction of the dumbest game ever played.
Barbados realized, quite correctly, that the odds of them scoring another goal in the last three minutes, and preventing Grenada from scoring, was quite slim. They would win by one goal and not qualify for the next round.
However, if the game was tied, it would go into extra time, where the golden goal rule would come into play.
Barbados would then have thirty minutes where all they had to do was score first. The golden goal rule would give them the win and the two goals they needed to advance.
So, at the 87-minute mark, after the goalie and defender kicked the ball to themselves for a while, they scored on their own goal.
This tied the game at 2-2. Now all they had to do was to stall for a few minutes to put the game into extra time.
Grenada quickly realized what was happening.
If the game was tied, they could lose. However, if they lost by one goal, they would advance.
So Grenada now had the incentive to score….. in either goal. Likewise, Barbados now had to defend….both goals.
The next three minutes were the craziest three minutes in the history of international football.
Grenada was trying to get the ball into any goal, and Barbados was trying to prevent anything from happening.
At the end of regulation time, Barbados managed to hang on, keeping the tie, and the game went into extra time.
Now it was just a matter of who scored first. Whoever did would win 4-2.
As it turned out, Barbados’s bet paid off. Midfielder Trevor Thorne scored the winning goal, and Barbados advanced.
After the game, Grenada’s coach was furious. He told the press:
I feel cheated. The person who came up with these rules must be a candidate for a madhouse…. The game should never be played with so many players running around the field confused. Our players did not even know which direction to attack: our goal or their goal. I have never seen this happen before. In football, you are supposed to score against the opponents to win, not for them.
He had a point, but the fact is, what Barbados did was perfectly logical within the rules of the tournament.
Despite the incredibly bizarre game, it received very little attention when it happened.
As it was an early-stage game between two low-ranked countries in the Caribbean, no one really cared.
Despite requests to penalize Barbados, FIFA didn’t do anything because they said they were playing the optimal strategy to advance in the tournament.
The two-point golden goal rule was never used again after the 1994 Caribbean Cup for obvious reasons.
The game itself became sort of an urban legend in football circles, except that it really happened. There is some very grainy footage from the match, which can be found on YouTube.
The fact that both teams at one point had an incentive to score against themselves was what made this the dumbest game in history. It goes totally against the spirit of any sort of sporting competition.
However, what both teams did was perfectly logical given the circumstances they found themselves in.
The real culprit was FIFA which put in a rule without thinking through the implications.
There was a similar, but quite different, situation that happened at the 1982 world cup.
In the last match of the group stage, West Germany was playing Austria. Germany was 1-1 going into the last game in Gijon, Spain. West Germany previously lost in an upset to Algeria.
Austria was 2-0, having beaten Algeria and Chile. Both teams had a +2 goal differential.
Algeria was 2-1, having already played their last game before the Germany-Austria match. They had an even goal differential, having beaten Chile and Germany by one, and losing to Austria by two.
West Germany scored first at the 10-minute mark…and then neither team had anything to play for anymore. If the score remained 1-0, both teams would advance. Neither team wanted to risk a goal being scored against them, so it wound up being what has been called the most boring 80 minutes in World Cup history.
The match has been dubbed the Disgrace of Gijón.
Again, FIFA didn’t penalize either team as both teams played in a way that was optimal for advancing.
They did, however, change it so that the last games for each group are now played simultaneously, so no one knows what they need to do before the match starts.
I suppose the lesson is that rules can have unintended consequences which weren’t considered when the rules were made.
Creating a goal worth two points in overtime doesn’t sound bad at first glance, but it directly resulted in the dumbest game ever played.