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 calculate who is the “group of death”.

But the boring answer is that there usually isn’t one these days. Changes to the structure of the tournament mean four real contenders are less likely to be grouped together.

This World Cup, however, is a slight exception. To explain why, here is a brief history of how the group of death gradually fades away.

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

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

Consequently, the quality was diluted. For this tournament, 50 percent of the sides would not even have qualified for the tournament if it was held when the concept of “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. Once, they were divided into four groups, then they were divided into six, and now into eight. The probability of getting two – or even three – in the same group is always reduced.

The second factor is increased spread in different confederations. This is not the same as the mere expansion of competition.

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

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

Bobby Charlton


England’s Bobby Charlton beats 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 is approximately expanded in line with the number of nations in general, the European quota is not.

UEFA Nations at the World Cup

Tournament UEFA nations

1930

31%

1934

75%

1938

87%

1950

62%

1954

75%

1958

69%

1962

63%

1966

63%

1970

56%

1974

56%

1978

62%

1982

58%

1986

58%

1990

58%

1994

54%

1998

47%

2002

47%

2006

44%

2010

41%

2014

41%

2018

44%

2022

41%

FIFA has prioritized regional representation over sheer quality. This is, after all, a world cup But this also means that the overall quality is weaker; it means that Italy is not qualified when Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Fair enough, but it’s also fair to say that the reigning European champions would be a more obvious candidate for any potential group of death.

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

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

Let’s go back to that first group of deaths in 1970. It was no coincidence that the World Cup of 1970 produced that group of deaths, instead of 1962 or 1966. For those two tournaments, the lot was sown. But after an agreement could not be reached on the seeding process before 1970, that lot was open.

The result? The competition’s two most recent winners, England and Brazil, were drawn in the same group, along with 1962 finalists Czechoslovakia. Romania were less intimidating in terms of reputation, although they did beat Czechoslovakia and lost to England and Brazil by a single goal, so they weren’t out of place. FIFA was determined to never let that happen again, and every lot was sown.

The seedings have taken different forms, but the system we are used to participate in Pot 1 which includes the strongest sides according to the world ranking (plus the host), and all other places in purely geographical pots (rather than seeded more according to classification).

Therefore, it was possible for a group to contain a top seed, plus a strong European part, a strong South American part and a strong African part, even if they were all ranked in the first 16 nations in the tournament.

That system was used until 2014. From 2018, things changed. Now the draw is sown in all, and the pots are determined according to the world ranking in terms of geography.

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

Team 1 Team 2 Team 3 Team 4

1998

Germany (1)

England (6)

Colombia (9)

Mexico (11)

2002

Spain (1)

Mexico (9)

England (10)

Paraguay (14)

2006

Brazil (1)

USA (9)

Netherlands (10)

Paraguay (15)

2010

Brazil (1)

France (9)

USA (10)

Cameroon (14)

2014

Spain (1)

Netherlands (8)

Chile (12)

USA (13)

2018

Germany (1)

Spain (8)

Costa Rica (22)

Nigeria (41)

2022

Brazil (1)

Mexico (9)

Senegal (20)

Wales (18*)

There is another complication with the 2022 World Cup, however – indicated by that asterisk.

Because some qualifying matches were delayed due to the pandemic – and the war delayed Ukraine’s play-off matches against Scotland and Wales – the draw for the 2022 World Cup took place before know the identity of three teams because they had not played their play-off. leave Therefore, those play-off sides were placed in Pot 4, regardless of their classification.

This was particularly relevant in the case of Wales, who defeated Ukraine to secure their place. Had the test been held before the draw, 18th-ranked Wales would have made them a Pot 3 camp (and indeed a Pot 2 side if there were no hosts ranked 51st, with Qatar automatically in Pot 1). . Instead, they were in Pot 4.

So, whatever group in Wales was drawn, it would be tougher than FIFA had originally planned. They were drawn with England (ranked fifth), USA (15th) and Iran (21st). That might not be overly deadly compared to 1970, for example, but it’s actually much stronger than anything four years ago – and that’s without considering the rivalry between England and Wales and the tension between the USA and Iran.

Whether you consider a death group is a matter of opinion. But it is likely to be more deadly than any World Cup group we will see again because of the expansion to a 48-team World Cup from 2026, combined with an increased geographic spread.

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

First, on the assumption (extremely unlikely) that the tournament comprises the 48 highest ranked sides in the world and the draw is seeded throughout, each group contains a side ranked 33rd or below. In all probability, once you count the quotas from 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 significantly, when two out of three sides advance from each group, things are less deadly. A 67 percent chance of progress doesn’t sound very dangerous. In 2026, the concept of the group of death will definitely be dead.

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



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