How Euro 2024 works: tie-breakers, predicted knockout routes and why the draw helps England

Dave Tickner
Euro 2024 draw
Graphics showing groups at Euro 2024 draw

Euro 2024 has reached the pointy end of the group stage, so that’s exciting isn’t it? Teams going through. Scotland going out. All that good stuff. How does it all work, though? A good and fair question. Here are some answers.

First up, Euro 2024 will follow the exact same format as the tournaments held in 2016 and 2021 after the event expanded from 16 teams to 24. After the group stage it’s a straight knockout bracket from the last 16 onwards.

 

How does the Euro 2024 group stage work?

The 24 teams have been drawn in to six four-team groups. The top two from each group qualify automatically for the last 16 along with the four best third-place teams, about whom more later.

The groups are:

Group A
Germany
Scotland
Hungary
Switzerland

Group B
Spain
Croatia
Italy
Albania

Group C
Slovenia
Denmark
Serbia
England

Group D
Poland
Netherlands
Austria
France

Group E
Belgium
Slovakia
Romania
Ukraine

Group F
Turkey
Georgia
Portugal
Czechia

You can check out all the latest permutations for each group here.

As well as being drawn into groups, the teams were drawn into specific positions as above to determine the order of fixtures. Apart from hosts Germany being allocated position A1 this was a free draw unrelated to pot seeding.

The three rounds of games for each group follow the same pattern:

1 v 2 and 3 v 4
1 v 3 and 2 v 4
4 v 1 and 2 v 3

The final pair of games will be played simultaneously to eliminate any ‘plays last’ advantage.

It’s your usual three points for a win and one for a draw.

 

What are the tie-breakers used for the Euro 2024 group stage?

If two or more teams finish level on points in a group, the following tie-break criteria apply

  • 1. Number of points obtained in the match(es) played between the teams in question
  • 2. Superior goal difference in the match(es) played between the teams in question
  • 3. Number of goals scored in the match(es) played between the teams in question
  • 4. In the event of a three-way tie, where criteria 1-3 have managed to break the tie for only team, they are applied again but this time only to the match between the two remaining tied teams. If after this any tie still remains, we move on to the following
  • 5. Superior goal difference in all group games
  • 6. Number of goals scored in all group matches
  • 7. If two teams are tied after playing each other in the final round of group games their ranking is determined by a penalty shoot-out.
  • 8. Lowest disciplinary points total (1pt per yellow card, 3pts for a red card after two yellows, 3pts for a straight red card, 4pts for a yellow followed by a straight red card
  • 9. Higher position in the European Qualifiers ranking
  • 10. In the event that a tie involves Germany, who have on qualifying ranking, that tie will be broken by drawing of lots

Now most of the second half of that can be forgotten about. It’s wildly unlikely – albeit not impossible – for the more outlandish parts below number six to be necessary. The main point to take away here is that head-to-head results trump goal difference, reducing if not quite eliminating entirely the value of giving a whipping boy an absolute thrashing.

 

How are the third-place Euro 2024 last-16 qualifiers ranked?

The six third-place finishers will be placed into a separate league table to determine the four qualifiers for the next stage. Clearly no head-to-head angle here, so the rules for classification are straightforward:

  • 1. Points
  • 2. Goal difference
  • 3. Goals scored
  • 4. Wins
  • 5. Disciplinary points total (see above)
  • 6. European Qualifiers ranking or drawing lots if Germany are involved

Again, it’s unlikely to go beyond the first few criteria but the disciplinary points can’t be entirely ignored here given that third-place teams are likely, by definition, to have similar overall records.

At the last two Euros combined, all 12 third-place finishers have had either three or four points, while eventual winners Portugal in 2016 – with three draws – are the only ones not to have had precisely one win.

Seven of the 12 teams across those two tournaments have had a goal difference between +1 and -1. As a rough guide, if you finish third with four points you will go through. Three points and a level or better goal difference, and you’re probably going through. Three points and a negative goal difference – which is where Hungary have finished up in Group A – means A Nervous Wait.

 

How do third-place teams affect the Euro 2024 knockout bracket?

In short, they make it messy. There’s a reason 16 and 32 are better numbers for a tournament.

With 32 teams – as the World Cup has been since 1998 but alas will be no more from 2026 – you get a nice clean last 16. Eight group winners play eight runners-up, meaning in theory the quarter-finalists should be the eight group winners.

It doesn’t work that way here. Four group winners play against a third-place team in the last 16. The other two group winners play runners-up, while the other four runners-up play each other.

That means that there are two lucky group winners who cannot face another group winner until at least the semi-finals. And one of those lucky group winners will come from Group C – England’s group.

It’s still difficult to plot any meaningful specific projection through the knockout bracket due to the wide variety of third-place permutations, but that particular picture is growing clearer by the game now.

What is England’s projected path through Euro 2024?

Looking at the prospective path for winners of each group shows these as the expected paths through the knockout rounds. The seeded team for each group is in brackets as the theoretical recipient of these routes, with our best guesses for possible opponents where feasible.

We’ve not bothered guessing with the third-place teams; until all four third-place qualifiers are known you don’t know where exactly in the draw each one will land.

If, for instance, the four best third-placed teams come from Groups A, B, C and D, then the winner of Group C would play the third-place team from Group D in the last 16. If the four third-place teams come from, say, Groups A, C, E and F, then the Group C winners would instead play the third-place team from Group E.

The latest mini-league of third-placed teams can can be found here.

There are either three or four possibilities for each third-place last-16 slot depending on which particular third-place teams qualify. The one definite to note is that two teams from the same first-round group cannot meet in the last 16.

We’re (inevitably wrongly, that’s the fun of actually playing tournaments) assuming the ‘expected’ winner always prevails to create these paths; i.e. a group winner always beats a runner-up or third-place team.

Group A (Germany)
Last 16: Runner-up Group C (Denmark)
Quarter-final: Winner Group B (Spain)
Semi-final: Winner Group F (Portugal)
Final: Winner Group C/D/E (France)

 

Group B (Spain)
Last 16: Third place A/D/E/F
Quarter-final: Winner Group A (Germany)
Semi-final: Winner Group F (Portugal)
Final: Winner Group C/D/E (France)

 

Group C (England)
Last 16: Third place Group D/E/F
Quarter-final: Runner-up Group A/B (Switzerland/Italy)
Semi-final: Winner Group D/E (France)
Final: Winner Group A/B/F (Germany/Spain/Portugal)

 

Group D (France)
Last 16: Runner-up Group F (Turkey)
Quarter-final: Winner Group E (Belgium)
Semi-final: Winner Group C (England)
Final: Winner Group A/B/F (Germany/Spain/Portugal)

 

Group E (Belgium)
Last 16: Third place Group A/B/C/D
Quarter-final: Winner Group D (France)
Semi-final: Winner Group C (England)
Final: Winner Group A/B/F (Germany/Spain/Portugal)

 

Group F (Portugal)
Last 16: Third place Group A/B/C
Quarter-final: Runner-up Group D/E (Netherlands)
Semi-final: Winner Group A/B (Germany/Spain)
Final: Winner Group C/D/E (France)

 

That’s all still quite hypothetical even with the handful of confirmed qualifiers we now know, but these routes do highlight how there are three distinct types of path through the knockouts, and not all are equal.

There are two group winners – Germany from Group A and either France or Netherlands in Group D – who have to face runners-up in the last 16 and (if the seeding holds) group winners in the last eight. This is, on paper, the hardest route.

Group B winners Spain and whoever emerges from the Group E chaos face third-place teams in the last 16 and (again, if seeding and form holds) group winners in the last eight.

Then there is the ‘easiest’ route of all, one from which Portugal will now benefit from Group F and which England are still somehow well placed to exploit in Group C, where the winners of those groups are guaranteed to face both a third-place team in the last 16 and a runner-up in the last eight.

Games in the knockout stage follow the standard tournament procedure. If level after 90 minutes there will be a straight 30 minutes of extra-time (no golden or silver goals these days) and if still level a penalty shoot-out.

The best thing about the European Championship format? Unlike at the World Cup, there is no third-place play-off.