There have only been four major finals tournaments with 24 teams competing, which were the World Cups of 1982 to 1994.
In 1982 the format was six groups of four, with the top two in each qualifying for a second group stage comprised of four groups of three, with the winners making the semi-final. It was all rather unsatisfactory, with the so-called “Disgrace of Gijón” at the forefront, the event which resulted in the final two games in each group subsequently being played simultaneously.
The 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups featured the six four-team group format with the four best third-placed teams joining the top two from each group in a round of sixteen. One problem with this format is that it favours the later groups who have the advantage of knowing what the records are of the earlier groups’ third-placed teams. Groups D, E and F have seen their third place teams advance eight times out of a possible nine, (Groups E and F have a 100% record), while the earlier Groups A, B and C have seen third-place advancement just four times from nine.
Interestingly, two of the third-placed teams in these events went on to reach the Final – Argentina in 1990 and Italy in 1994. Belgium reached the semi-final as a third-placed team in 1986. The other nine advancers all lost in the Round of 16.
With Euro 2016 following the same format, in Group E Belgium know that a draw will suffice versus Sweden, while the Swedes and Republic of Ireland (v Italy) know they need to win.
In Group F, Iceland and Portugal both know that draws today will see them advance, while Austria have to win against Iceland to progress.