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 to find out what the “group of death” is.

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

However, this World Cup is a slight exception. To explain why, here is a brief history of how the group died out gradually.

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. (As of 1982 there were 24 teams, as of 1998 there were 32, and as of 2026 there will be 48.)

As a result, the quality is diluted. For this tournament, 50 percent of the teams 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 real chance of winning the competition. Once upon a time 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 gradually decreased.

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

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Historically, the real contenders for the World Cup have come 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 team has ever reached the semi-finals – South Korea on home soil in 2002. And only one team from North America 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 number of nations overall, the European quota has not.

UEFA Nations at 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 outright quality. After all, it is a World Cup. But this also means the overall quality is poorer; this means Italy does not qualify when Saudi Arabia and Tunisia do. That’s entirely 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 deaths.

Indeed, the deadliest squad ever at a major tournament came not at a World Cup, but at Euro ’96. It featured Germany (second in the world), Russia (third), Italy (seventh) and 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 that first group of deaths in 1970. It was no coincidence that World Cup 1970 produced that group of deaths, rather than 1962 or 1966. For those two tournaments, the draw was decided. But after no agreement could be reached on the process of sowing before 1970, that draw was open.

The result? The two most recent winners of the competition, 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 defeated Czechoslovakia and lost to England and Brazil by only a single goal, so were hardly out of place. FIFA was determined to never let this happen again and every draw since then has been refereed.

The seeds have taken various forms, but the system we have become accustomed to has involved Pot 1 comprising the strongest sides by world ranking (plus the hosts), and all others placed in purely geographical pots (rather than to be further seeded according to rank order).

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

This system was used until 2014. From 2018, things changed. Now the draw is seeded throughout, and the pots are determined by world ranking rather than geography.

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

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 a further complication with World Cup 2022 – indicated by that little asterisk.

With some qualifiers delayed due to the pandemic – and war delaying Ukraine’s play-offs against Scotland and Wales – the draw for World Cup 2022 took place before we knew the identity of three teams as they had not played their play-off. matches. Therefore, those playoff teams were placed in Pot 4 regardless of their ranking.

This was particularly relevant in the case of Wales, who defeated Ukraine to secure their place. Had that play-off taken place before the draw, Wales’ ranking of 18 would have made them a Pot 3 team (and indeed a Pot 2 team had it not been for the 51st-seeded hosts Qatar being automatically in Pot 1 not). . Instead, they were in Pot 4.

So whichever group Wales are drawn into will be more difficult than FIFA originally envisaged. They were drawn along with England (fifth), USA (15th) and Iran (21st). Which isn’t overwhelmingly 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 rivalry between England and Wales and tensions between the US and Iran.

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

FIFA aims to adapt for the 48-team tournament using 16 groups of three, with two teams progressing to the knockout stages. This has two implications for potential groups of deaths.

First, on the (highly unlikely) assumption that the tournament comprises the 48 highest-ranked teams in the world and the draw is seeded throughout, each group will contain a team ranked 33rd or lower. In all likelihood, once you account for 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 from each group advance, things are less deadly. A 67 percent chance of progression simply doesn’t feel overwhelmingly dangerous. By 2026, the concept of the group of death will be definitively dead.

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



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