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

When the draw for the World Cup is completed, the immediate task is figuring out which is the “group of death”.

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

The World Cup, however, is a small exception. To explain why, here is a brief history of how the group of death gradually faded away.

There are three factors at play. The first factor is 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. (Since 1982 there have been 24 teams, since 1998 there have been 32, and by 2026 there will be 48.)

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

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There are probably the same number of contenders for each World Cup; Around eight to 10 sides with a genuine chance to win 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 steadily reduced.

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

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Historically, the genuine contenders of the World Cup have been almost exclusively 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 back in 1930.

Bobby Charlton


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

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

UEFA nations at the World Cup

tournament UEFA countries

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 prioritized regional representation over equal quality. This is a World Cup. But this also means that the overall quality is weak; This means that Italy do not qualify when Saudi Arabia and Tunisia do. That’s 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-ever 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 it also produced the two eventual finalists.

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

Let’s go back to the first group of death in 1970. It was no coincidence that the World Cup 1970 produced that group of death, rather than 1962 or 1966. For the two tournaments, the draw was seeded. But after no agreement could be reached on the process of seeding ahead of 1970, that draw was open.

The results? 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 intimidating in terms of reputation, although they beat Czechoslovakia and lost to England and Brazil by just one goal, so they were barely out of the picture. FIFA was determined never to let this happen again and every draw since has been seeded.

The seedings have taken various forms, but the system we have become accustomed to involves Pot 1 comprising the strongest sides according to world ranking (plus the hosts), and all others placed in purely geographic pots (rather than seeded further according to rankings).

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

That system was used until 2014. From 2018, things changed. Now the draw is seeded over, and pots are determined by world ranking rather than 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 in the deadliest possible groups at 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)

Holland (10)

Paraguay (15)

2010

Brazil (1)

France (9)

USA (10)

Cameroon (14)

2014

Spain (1)

Holland (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 a further complication with the World Cup 2022, however – indicated by the asterisk.

Because several qualification matches were delayed due to the pandemic – and war delayed Ukraine’s play-off matches against Scotland and Wales – the draw for the 2022 World Cup took place before we knew the identity of three teams because they did not play their games- Off. Matches. Therefore, the play-off sides are placed in Pot 4, regardless of their rankings.

This was especially relevant in the case of Wales, who defeated Ukraine to secure their place. If the play-off had taken place before the draw, Wales’ rank of 18 would have made them a Pot 3 side (and, indeed, a Pot 2 side if it wasn’t for the 51st-ranked hosts Qatar automatically in Pot 1). Instead, they were in Pot 4.

So whatever group Wales are drawn in would be tougher than FIFA originally envisaged. They are drawn alongside England (ranked fifth), USA (15th), and Iran (21st). That may not be overwhelmingly deadly compared to 1970, for example, but it is actually much stronger than anything four years ago – and that is without considering the rivalry between England and Wales and tension between the USA and Iran.

Whether you consider it a group of death is a matter of opinion. But it’s probably more lethal than any World Cup group we’ll see again given the expansion to a 48-team World Cup from 2026, combined with increased geographical spread.

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

First, on the (highly unlikely) assumption that the tournament comprises the 48 highest-ranked sides in the world and the draw is seeded all the way through, each group would contain a side ranked 33rd or below. In all probability, once you account for quotas from each confederation, it seems more likely that the average rating of the Pot 3 sides will be in the 50s or 60s.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, when two out of three sides progress from each group, things are less lethal. A 67 percent chance of progression simply doesn’t feel overwhelmingly dangerous. In 2026, the concept of the group of death will be definitively dead.

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



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