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 over, the immediate task is to find out what the “team of death” is.

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

However, this World Cup is a minor exception. To explain why, here’s a brief history of how the death squad gradually faded away.

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There are three factors at play. The first thing is to expand the tournament.

The phrase “Group of Death” was first coined in 1970 when there were only 16 teams in the tournament. (There have been 24 teams since 1982, 32 since 1998, and 48 since 2026.)

As a result, the quality is diluted. For this tournament, 50 percent would not qualify for the tournament if it was held when the “group of death” concept was first defined.

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There are often an equal number of competitors for each World Cup; About eight to 10 sides with a genuine chance of winning the match. Some time ago the teams were divided into four, then six, now eight. The probability of getting two or three in the same group has gradually decreased.

The second factor is spread across different associations. This is not the same as the mere spread of competition.

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Historically, the real contenders for the World Cup have been drawn almost entirely from Europe and South America.

No African country 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 at home in 2002. And again in 1930, USA was the only other North American team to reach the semifinals.

Bobby Charlton


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

Although the South American team for each tournament has expanded roughly in line with the total number of nations, the European quota has not.

UEFA countries in 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 overall quality. This, after all, is world Cup. But this means that the overall quality is poor; Saudi Arabia and Tunisia qualified while Italy did not qualify. That’s entirely fair, but it’s fair to say that the reigning European champions would be the most obvious candidates for any potential Team of Death.

In fact, the deadliest team 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 the Czech Republic (10th), which also produced the last two finalists.

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

Let’s go back to that first batch of deaths in 1970. It is no coincidence that the 1970 World Cup, rather than 1962 or 1966, produced that group of death. The draws for those two tournaments were early. But after 1970, when agreement could not be reached on the seeding process, the draw opened.

The result? The competition’s two most recent winners, England and Brazil, were drawn in the same group as Czechoslovakia, runners-up since 1962. Romania beat Czechoslovakia and lost by only one goal to England and Brazil, but prestige was not too daunting. FIFA was determined to never let this happen again and every draw since then has been scored.

Seeding has taken many forms, but the system we used to pit 1 pot of the strongest sides by world ranking (plus hosts), and everyone else was placed into purely geographical pots (instead of further seeding by ranking).

So, even though they all ranked among the top 16 nations in the tournament, one team could include a top team, a strong European team, a strong South American team and a strong African team.

That method was used until 2014. Things have changed since 2018. Now seeded throughout the draw, pots are determined by world ranking rather than geography.

That meant the potentially lethal squad for the 2018 World Cup was significantly lower than in previous years. In fact, according to the world rankings, the third-strongest team in the Mortal-Possible group was weaker than the fourth-strongest team in the Mortal-Possible teams in previous tournaments.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4

1998

Germany (1)

England (6)

Colombia (9)

Mexico (11)

2002

Spain (1)

Mexico (9)

England (10)

Paraguay (14)

2006

Brazil (1)

United States of America (9)

Netherlands (10)

Paraguay (15)

2010

Brazil (1)

France (9)

United States of America (10)

Cameroon (14)

2014

Spain (1)

Netherlands (8)

Chile (12)

United States of America (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.

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

This was particularly true of Wales, who beat Ukraine to secure their place. Had that match taken place before the draw, Wales’ 18th seed would have made them a Pot 3 side (and, of course, would have been a Pot 2 team if 51st-ranked hosts Qatar were not automatically in Pot 1). . Instead they were in Pot 4.

So whichever group Wales are drawn into will be tougher than FIFA originally expected. They were drawn with England (fifth), USA (15th) and Iran (21st). Compared to 1970, for example, it may not be extremely lethal, but it is actually stronger than any four years ago – and that does not take into account the rivalry between England and Wales and the tension between the USA and Iran.

Depending on what you consider a death squad. But with the increased geographical spread and expansion to a 48-team World Cup from 2026, it could be more lethal than any World Cup group we’ll see again.

FIFA intends to format the 48-team tournament using 16 teams of three, with 2 teams progressing to the knockout stage. That has two implications for potential groups of death.

First, on the (highly unlikely) assumption that the tournament consists of 48 of the world’s highest-ranked teams and the draw is even scored, every team will be ranked 33rd or lower. In all likelihood, once you account for quotas from each confederation, it looks like the average ranking of Pot 3 sides could be in the 50s or 60s.

Second, and perhaps more significantly, when two-thirds of the sides from each team advance, things become less deadly. A 67 percent chance of progression doesn’t sound too dire. By 2026, the concept of the death squad will definitely be dead.

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



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