In some groups, differentials in points, goals or goals scored already rule out any mathematical possibility that sheer luck will determine the fate of any country. Here is a rundown of the official FIFA tiebreaking procedures in the World Cup:
1) Greatest number of points obtained in all group matches
The teams with the most points advance. If teams are tied, the next factor that comes into play is:
2) Goal differential in all group matches
The total amount of goals conceded is subtracted from the total amount of goals scored in all group matches. If the goal differential is the same, the next tiebreaker comes into effect.
3) Greatest number of goals scored in all group matches
The team that scored more goals will advance. If still tied, the teams' direct comparison against one another becomes to decisive factor:
4) Greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned
Essentially, this means if teams are otherwise even in points, goal differential and goals scored, whoever beat the other team in direct comparison advances. If the highly unlikely case occurs in which more than two teams are tied this way, the following tiebreakers take effect:
5) Goal differential resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned
6) Greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned
However, if two or three teams are entirely even, one final and cruel tiebreaking procedure determines who goes home and who will play in the Round of 16:
7) Drawing of lots by the FIFA Organizing Committee
No team has ever been eliminated this way in World Cup history. But there is exactly one occasion where this actually determined the group seeding and further placement of two teams in the knockout stage. In the 1990 World Cup, the four best third-placed teams still advanced to the knockout round (unlike today, where every third seed faces elimination). The Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland, having drawn 1-1 in the tournament, each played ties in their other games, 1-1 and 0-0. They were tied for second behind England.
When the lots were drawn, luck was with the Irish, who went on to play Romania, whereas the Netherlands were seeded third and had to play West Germany, the eventual winners of the 1990 tournament. Meanwhile, luck remained with the Irish at first as they beat Romania in penalties, before being knocked out by the Italians in the quarterfinal.
In the current World Cup, a drawing of lots is actually somewhat realistic for at least one group. Here are the scenarios for those groups in which there is a mathematical chance for said outcome:
If Mexico and Brazil both lose on Monday with Mexico scoring precisely two more goals and allowing one more goal than Brazil, both teams will be tied with four points, and an even goal difference. The teams previously played to a scoreless draw, which would mean elimination by the drawing of lots for one of them.
Croatia vs. Mexico; 2-3
Cameroon vs. Brazil; 2-0
This scenario would leave both teams at four points and a 3-3 goal difference behind Croatia.
If Japan and Greece win on Tuesday and Greece wins by two more goals than Japan but scores only one more goal than Japan, both teams would be at identical records in terms of points, goal differential and goals scored. The teams played a 0-0 draw, so lots would decide.
Greece vs. Ivory Coast; 3-0
Japan vs. Colombia; 2-1
This would leave both teams at four points with 3-3 goals.
Meanwhile, if Ivory Coast and Japan finish tied in points, goal differential and goals scored, Ivory Coast would advance because it beat Japan 2-1.
This seems like the most likely scenario in which lots could actually come into play. An Iran win on Wednesday vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina by one goal and by the same score as a Nigeria loss to Argentina would deadlock Iran vs. Nigeria at four points, a goal differential of zero and the same amount of goals scored.
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran; 0-1
Nigeria vs. Argentina; 1-0
In this case, Nigeria and Iran would be tied for second behind Argentina with four points and a 1-1 goal differential each.
In the United States’ group, there are two possibilities for the drawing of lots to occur.
If the U.S. loses and Portugal wins on Thursday by a combined margin of five goals and Portugal scores exactly two more goals than the U.S., Germany would top the group with seven points, while Portugal and the U.S. would be even with four points, a goal difference of somewhere between zero and minus-3 and the same amount of goals scored.
U.S. vs Germany; 2-3
Portugal vs. Ghana; 4-0
In this case, the U.S. and Portugal would be tied at four points and a 6-6 goal differential, after having drawn 2-2.
U.S. vs. Germany; 1-3
Portugal vs. Ghana; 3-0
In this scenario, the U.S. and Portugal would both have four points and a 5-6 goal differential.
[Related: What the U.S. has to do in order to advance]
Meanwhile, if Germany loses and Ghana wins by a combined margin of five goals, with Ghana scoring exactly three more goals than Germany, the U.S. would emerge as the winner of the group with six points, while Germany and Ghana would be tied with four points, a goal difference somewhere between 0 and plus-3, and six (or more) goals scored. They played a 2-2 draw against each other, so the lots would have to decide.
U.S. vs. Germany; 2-1
Portugal vs. Ghana; 0-4
Ghana and Germany in this case would both be tied at four points, and a 7-4 goal difference.
If Germany and Portugal or the U.S. and Ghana finish exactly even with four points, same goal differential and goals scored, Germany or the U.S. advances because of the respective head-to-head win.
This might be the longest shot of all. If South Korea beats leader Belgium by one more goal than Russia beats Algeria, but Russia also scores exactly two more goals than South Korea in the process, South Korea and Russia will finish even at four points, a goal difference of at least zero, and at least five goals scored. They played to a 1-1 draw.
But that scenario requires at least seven total goals to be scored in the Algeria-Russia match, more than any game in this year's World Cup.
Algeria vs. Russia; 3-4
South Korea vs. Belgium; 2-0
In this case, Russia and South Korea would be tied at four points and a 5-5 goal differential, after having drawn 1-1.
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