By Mark Gleeson

HAMBURG, Germany (Reuters) – Sunday marks the start of the final round of group matches at the European Championship, with games in the same groups kicking off simultaneously in a rule that has its origins in one of football’s darkest days.

All major tournaments have played their last rounds of group games simultaneously since the 1984 European Championship in France to avoid any contrived results but if Belgium win on Saturday, there is the potential for manipulation in the last set of Group F games at the tournament in Germany.

A Belgium victory over Romania in Cologne would see all four teams in the group on the same three-point tally, going into their last round of games.

That could set up the scenario that if one of the last Group F games on Wednesday sees one team take a decisive lead, the protagonists in the other match will know a draw would send both through – one of them as a third-placed finisher.

This would have echoes of the “Disgrace of Gijon” at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

West Germany beat neighbours Austria 1-0 in a contrived result that ensured both teams went through to the next round at the expense of Algeria, who had played their last group game the previous day.

A win for the Germans ensured top spot and Austria would finish second as long as they did not lose by three goals. The Germans scored early but the game then descended into farce with the ball passed repeatedly sideways and players performing at walking pace.

“What happened that day embarrassed the organisers of the World Cup so badly they changed the rules to make sure it could never happen. They couldn’t risk putting on another game that was remembered as so notorious,” said Scotsman Bob Valentine, who refereed the match.

EXPANDED TOURNAMENT

Europe was the first confederation to expand its continental championship from 16 to 24 teams for the 2016 finals in France.

It meant the knockout stage would feature 16 teams rather than eight and offer places to not only the top two finishers in the six groups but also the four best third-placed teams.

These four are determined by the number of points obtained, then goal difference, goals scored, number of wins and if still tied, the team with the lower disciplinary points total.

In the unprecedented case of teams still not being separated, the final decider is the rankings from the qualifiers.

Four points has always proved enough for a third placed finisher to advance to the last 16. This is true of the last two Euros plus the past three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, where they have also had 24 teams and use the same format.

At the last European Championship, Ukraine sneaked into the last of the four lucky loser berths by virtue of a better goal difference than Finland and Slovakia with all three finishing their groups on three points.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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