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

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Whenever the World Cup draw is completed, the immediate task is to find out who the ‘group of death’ is.

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

However, this World Cup is a bit of an exception. To explain why, here’s a brief history of how the Death Squad gradually disappeared.

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

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 since 2026 there will be 48.)

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

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There are probably an equal number of contenders for each world cup; about eight to 10 countries with a real chance of winning the competition. They were once divided into four groups, then six, and now eight. The probability of getting two – or even three – in the same group is constantly decreasing.

The second factor is the increased spread across confederations. This is not the same as simply expanding competition.

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Historically, the real contenders for 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 reached the quarter-finals. Only one Asian country has ever reached the semi-finals – South Korea on home soil in 2002. And only one North American country has ever reached the semi-finals, the USA in 1930.

Bobby Charlton


England’s Bobby Charlton battles 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 expanded roughly in line with the total number of nations, the European quota has 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 prioritized regional representation over sheer quality. After all, it is a Holy A cup. But that also means the overall quality is poorer; this means that Italy does not qualify when Saudi Arabia and Tunisia do. That’s entirely fair, 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 at a major tournament came not at the World Cup, but at Euro’96. It features Germany (ranked second in the world), Russia (third), Italy (seventh) and the Czech Republic (10th), and also broadcasts both eventual finalists.

The third factor, and perhaps the most relevant, is the seeding 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, not 1962 or 1966. For those two tournaments, the draw was made. But since agreement could not be reached on the seeding process before 1970, this draw was opened.

The result? The competition’s two most recent winners, England and Brazil, were drawn 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 hardly out of place. FIFA was determined to never let that happen again and every tie since then has been set.

The seedings have taken various forms, but the system we have become accustomed to has Pot 1 comprising the strongest countries according to world ranking (plus the hosts) and everyone else being placed in purely geographical pots (rather than being seeded further down according to ranking). .

It was therefore possible for a 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 nations of the tournament.

This system was used until 2014. Since 2018, things have changed. The draw is now set at all times and pots are determined by world ranking rather than geography.

This meant that the deadliest possible squad for the 2018 World Cup was significantly less lethal than previous years. In fact, the third-strongest country in the deadliest possible group was weaker than the fourth-strongest country in the deadliest 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)

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*)

However, there is another complication with the 2022 World Cup – indicated 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 three teams because they had not played their playoff games. Therefore, these playoff sides were placed in Pot 4 regardless of their ranking.

This was particularly important in the case of Wales, who beat Ukraine to secure their place. Had this play-off been held prior to the draw, Wales’ ranking of 18 would have made them a Pot 3 side (and indeed a Pot 2 side, if not for 51st-ranked hosts Qatar, who were automatically in Pot 1). They were in Pot 4 instead.

So whichever group Wales are drawn into will be more difficult than FIFA originally predicted. They were drawn alongside England (ranked fifth), USA (15th) and Iran (21st). Which may not be hugely 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.

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

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

First, on the (extremely unlikely) assumption that the tournament features the 48 highest-ranked countries in the world and the draw is made all the way through, each group will contain a country ranked 33rd or lower. In all likelihood, once you account for the quotas from each confederation, it seems more likely that the average ranking of Pot 3 countries 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 of progression just doesn’t seem extremely dangerous. By 2026, the group of death concept will be dead for good.

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



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