Are you looking for the “Group of Death” of this World Cup? He does not exist anymore. Here’s why…

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

But the boring answer is that there are usually none these days. Changes to the tournament structure mean that four true contenders are less likely to be grouped together.

This World Cup, however, is a slight exception. To explain why, here’s a brief history of the band’s gradual demise.

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

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.)

Therefore, the quality has been diluted. For this tournament, 50% of the teams wouldn’t even have qualified for the tournament if it had taken place when the concept of “group of death” was first defined.

There are probably the same number of contenders for each World Cup; about eight to 10 teams 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 likelihood of having two – or even three – in the same group has steadily decreased.

The second factor is the increased distribution between the different confederations. This is not the same as simply expanding competition.

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 reached the semi-finals – South Korea at home in 2002. And only one North American team has reached the semi-finals, USA in 1930.


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

And while the South American quota for each tournament has increased roughly in proportion to the number of nations in total, 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 absolute quality. It is, after all, a World Cup. But it also means that the overall quality is lower; that means Italy don’t 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 kills.

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

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

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

The result? The last two 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, despite beating Czechoslovakia and losing to England and Brazil by just one goal, so they were out of place. FIFA were determined never to let that happen again and every draw since has been classified.

The rankings took various forms, but the system we became accustomed to involved pot 1 comprising the strongest teams according to world ranking (plus hosts), and all others placed in purely geographical pots (rather than further ranked according to rankings).

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

This system was used until 2014. From 2018 things changed. Now the draw is spread all over and pots are determined based on 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 team in the deadliest possible pool was weaker than the fourth-strongest team in the deadliest possible pools 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)

United States (9)

Netherlands (10)

Paraguay (15)

2010

Brazil (1)

France (9)

United States (10)

Cameroon (14)

2014

Spain (1)

Netherlands (8)

Chile (12)

United States (13)

2018

Germany (1)

Spain (8)

Costa Rica (22)

Nigeria (41)

2022

Brazil (1)

Mexico (9)

Senegal (20)

Wales (18*)

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

Because some qualifying matches have been delayed due to the pandemic – and the war has delayed Ukraine’s play-offs against Scotland and Wales – the 2022 World Cup draw has took place before we knew the identity of three teams because they had not played their match play-off. Therefore, these play-off teams were placed in pot 4, regardless of their ranking.

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

So whichever group Wales were drawn into would be tougher than FIFA had originally anticipated. They were drawn alongside England (ranked fifth), the United States (15th) and Iran (21st). Which might not be hugely deadly compared to say 1970, but it’s actually a lot stronger than four years ago – and that’s disregarding the rivalry between England and Wales and tensions between the United States and Iran.

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

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

Firstly, assuming (extremely unlikely) that the tournament features the 48 highest ranked teams in the world and the draw is split down the line, each group would contain a team ranked 33rd or lower. In all likelihood, once you take into account the quotas of each confederation, it seems more likely that the average ranking of Pot 3 teams is in the 50s or 60s.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, when two out of three teams progress in each group, things are less deadly. A 67% chance of progression just doesn’t seem extremely perilous. By 2026, the concept of the band of death will be dead forever.

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

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