Looking for this World Cup’s ‘Group of Death’? It doesn’t exist anymore. Here’s why…

Whenever the draw for the World Cup is completed, the immediate task is to find out which is the “group of death”.

But the boring answer is that it generally doesn’t exist today. Changes to the structure of the tournament mean that the four true contenders are less likely to be grouped together.

This World Cup, however, is a small exception. To explain why, here’s a brief history of how the Death Squad gradually disappeared.

There are three factors at play. The first factor is the expansion of the tournament.

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The term “group of death” was first coined in 1970, when there were only 16 teams in the tournament. (Since 1982, there have been 24 teams, since 1998, 32, and from 2026, there will be 48.)

Therefore, the quality is weakened. For this tournament, 50 percent of the sides would not have even qualified for the tournament if it had been held when the concept of the “group of death” was first defined.

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There are probably the same number of contenders for each World Cup; about eight to 10 sides with a real chance of winning the competition. They used to be divided into four groups, then into six, and now into eight. The probability of getting two — or even three — in the same group is steadily decreasing.

Another factor is the increased distribution in different confederations. This is not the same as mere expansion of competition.

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Historically, the real contenders for the World Cup have almost exclusively come from Europe and South America.

No African nation has ever reached the semi-finals. No team from Oceania reached the quarter-finals. Only one Asian team has ever reached the semifinals — South Korea on home soil in 2002. And only one North American team has ever reached the semifinals, the USA in 1930.

Bobby Charlton


England’s Bobby Charlton takes on Brazil’s Clodoaldo in the original ‘Group of Death’ in 1970 (Photo: Syndication/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

And while the South American contingent for each tournament has roughly expanded in line with the total number of nations, the European quota has not.

UEFA nations at the World Cup

Tournament UEFA nations

1930

31%

in 1934

75%

in 1938

87%

1950

62%

in 1954

75%

in 1958

69%

in 1962

63%

in 1966

63%

in 1970

56%

in 1974

56%

in 1978

62%

in 1982

58%

in 1986

58%

in 1990

58%

in 1994

54%

in 1998

47%

in 2002

47%

in 2006

44%

2010

41%

in 2014

41%

2018

44%

in 2022

41%

FIFA prioritized regional representation over total quality. This is, after all, a The world Cup. But it also means that the overall quality is lower; this means that Italy does not qualify like Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. That’s fair enough, but it’s also reasonable to say that the reigning European champions would be the more obvious candidates for any potential group of death.

Indeed, the deadliest group ever at a major tournament came not at the World Cup, but at Euro ’96. It featured Germany (second in the world), Russia (third), Italy (seventh) and the Czech Republic (10th), and produced two finalists.

The third factor, and perhaps the most relevant, is the sowing system.

Let’s go back to that first group of death in 1970. It was no coincidence that the 1970 World Cup produced that group of death and not 1962 or 1966. For those two tournaments, the draw was seeded. But after no agreement could be reached on the pre-1970 selection process, that draw was opened.

The result? The competition’s last two winners, England and Brazil, were drawn together in the same group, along with 1962 runners-up Czechoslovakia. Romania were less formidable by reputation, although they beat Czechoslovakia and lost to England and Brazil by just one goal, so they were hardly out of place. FIFA was determined to never allow this to happen again and every draw since then has been seeded.

The set-up took various forms, but the system we were used to involved Pot 1 consisting of the strongest sides according to world ranking (plus the hosts), with everyone else placed in purely geographical pots (rather than further down the rankings).

It was therefore possible for one group to contain the top seed, plus a strong European, a strong South American and a strong African side, even if they were all ranked among the top 16 nations in the tournament.

That system was used until 2014. As of 2018, things have changed. The draw is now carried throughout, and pots are determined by world rankings rather than geography.

This meant that the deadliest possible group for the 2018 World Cup was significantly less lethal than in previous years. In fact, the third-strongest team in the deadliest group was weaker than the fourth-strongest team from the deadliest groups in previous tournaments, according to the world rankings.

Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Team 4

in 1998

Germany (1)

England (6)

Colombia (9)

Mexico (11)

in 2002

Spain (1)

Mexico (9)

England (10)

Paraguay (14)

in 2006

Brazil (1)

USA (9)

Netherlands (10)

Paraguay (15)

2010

Brazil (1)

France (9)

USA (10)

Cameroon (14)

in 2014

Spain (1)

Netherlands (8)

Chile (12)

USA (13)

2018

Germany (1)

Spain (8)

Costa Rica (22)

Nigeria (41)

in 2022

Brazil (1)

Mexico (9)

Senegal (20)

Wales (18*)

However, there is another complication with the 2022 World Cup — marked by that asterisk.

With some qualifiers postponed due to the pandemic — and the war delaying Ukraine’s play-off games against Scotland and Wales — the draw for the 2022 World Cup took place before we knew the identities of the three teams because they did not play a play-off game. Therefore, those play-off sides are placed in Pot 4, regardless of their ranking.

This was particularly relevant in the case of Wales, who beat Ukraine to secure their place. Had that play-off taken place before the draw, Wales’ ranking of 18 would have made them a third-placed side (and, indeed, a third-placed side if it weren’t for 51st-ranked hosts Qatar, who would automatically be in pot 1) . They were in Pot 4 instead.

So, whichever group Wales are drawn into, it will be tougher than FIFA originally envisioned. They were drawn alongside England (fifth place), USA (15th) and Iran (21st). Which may not be terribly lethal compared to 1970, for example, but it’s actually much stronger than anything four years ago – and that’s without taking into account the England-Wales rivalry and US-Iran tensions.

Do you think the group of death is a matter of opinion. But it is likely to be more lethal than any World Cup group we will see again due to the expansion to a 48-team World Cup from 2026, combined with increased geographical spread.

FIFA intends to adapt the 48-team tournament using 16 groups of three, with two teams advancing to the knockout stage. This has two implications for potential death groups.

First, under the (extremely unlikely) assumption that the tournament consisted of the 48 top-ranked sides in the world and that the draw was set all the way for the seeds, each group would contain a team ranked 33rd or lower. In all likelihood, when you factor in the odds of each confederation, it seems more likely that the average ranking of the Pot 3 sides will be in the 50s or 60s.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, when two out of three sides advance from each group, things are less deadly. A 67 percent chance to advance just doesn’t feel overly dangerous. By 2026, the group of death concept will definitely be dead.

(Photo: Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)



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