Looking for the “group of death” of this World Cup? It does not exist anymore. Here’s why…

Whenever the World Cup draw is complete, the immediate task is to figure out which is the “Group of Death”.

But the boring answer is that nowadays generally there aren’t any. Changes to the structure of the tournament mean four real contenders are less likely to be grouped together.

However, this World Cup is a small exception. To explain why, here is a brief history of how the group of death gradually disappeared.

Three factors play a role. The first factor is the expansion of the tournament.

The phrase “group of death” was first coined in 1970 when only 16 teams took part 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 has been watered down. For this tournament, 50 percent of the teams would not have even 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 every world championship; about eight to ten pages with a real chance of winning the competition. They used to be divided into four groups, then six, and now eight. The probability of getting two – or even three – in the same group has steadily decreased.

The second factor is increasingly distributed across different confederations. This is not the same as simply increasing competition.

Historically, real contenders for the World Championship have come almost exclusively from Europe and South America.

No African nation has ever reached the semifinals. No team from Oceania has ever reached the quarter-finals. Only one Asian team has ever reached the semi-finals – South Korea in 2002 on home soil. And only one North American team has ever reached the semifinals, USA in 1930.

Bobby Charlton


Englishman Bobby Charlton fights Brazilian Clodoaldo in the original “Group of Death” in 1970 (Photo: Syndication/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

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

UEFA Nations at the World Cup

competition 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 absolute quality. This is finally a World Cup. However, this also means that the overall quality is weaker; it means Italy won’t qualify if Saudi Arabia and Tunisia do. That’s entirely fair, but it’s also reasonable to say that the reigning European champions would be a more obvious candidate for any potential group of deaths.

In fact, the deadliest group ever in a major tournament came not at a World Cup but at Euro ’96. It consisted of Germany (second globally), Russia (third), Italy (seventh) and the Czech Republic (10th) and also produced the eventual two finalists.

The third and perhaps most relevant factor is the system of sowing.

Going back to that first group of deaths in 1970. It was no coincidence that the 1970 World Cup produced this group of deaths and not 1962 or 1966. The draw was set for those two tournaments. But after failure to reach agreement on the pre-1970 seeding process, 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 just a single goal, so were hardly out of place. FIFA was determined never to let that happen again, and every tie since has been settled.

Seeding has taken different forms, but the system we’ve become accustomed to has included Pot 1, which included the strongest teams by world rankings (plus hosts), and all others were seeded into purely geographical pots (rather than continuing to be seeded by rankings) .

It was therefore possible for a group to contain a top-placed team as well as a strong European team, a strong South American team and a strong African team, even if they were all ranked in the tournament’s top 16 nations.

This system was used until 2014. From 2018 things changed. Now the draw is settled continuously, and the pots are determined by world rankings, not geography.

That meant the deadliest group for the 2018 World Cup was significantly less deadly than previous years. In fact, in previous world rankings, the third-strongest team in the deadliest group was weaker than the fourth-strongest team in the deadliest group.

team 1 team 2 team 3 team 4

1998

Germany (1)

United Kingdom (6)

Colombia (9)

Mexico (11)

2002

Spain (1)

Mexico (9)

United Kingdom (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*)

However, there is one more complication with the 2022 World Cup – indicated by that asterisk.

With some qualifiers postponed due to the pandemic – and the war delaying Ukraine’s playoff games against Scotland and Wales – the 2022 World Cup draw took place before we knew the identities of three teams as they hadn’t played their playoff matches . Therefore, these playoff teams were placed in Pot 4 regardless of their placement.

This was particularly relevant in the case of Wales, who defeated Ukraine to secure their place. If that play-off had taken place before the draw, Wales would have become a Pot 3 side at rank 18 (and indeed a Pot 2 side if Qatar, at 51st place, hadn’t automatically been in Pot 1). . Instead, they were in Pot 4.

Regardless of which group Wales is drawn into, it’s going to be tougher than FIFA initially envisioned. They were drawn alongside England (fifth), USA (15) and Iran (21). Which isn’t overwhelmingly deadly compared to 1970, for example, but is actually much stronger than anything four years ago – and that’s without counting the rivalry between England and Wales and tensions between the US and Iran.

Whether you consider this a death group is a matter of opinion. But it’s probably deadlier than any Worlds grouping we’ll see again due to expansion to a 48-team Worlds starting in 2026 combined with a wider geographic spread.

FIFA intends to adapt to the 48-team tournament by fielding 16 groups of three, with two teams progressing to the knockout rounds. This has two implications for potential death groups.

First, assuming (extremely unlikely) that the tournament includes the top 48 teams in the world and the draw is fully seeded, each group would contain one team ranked 33rd or below. In all likelihood, when you factor in the odds of each confederation, it seems more likely that the average ranking of pot 3 sides will be in the 50’s or 60’s.

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 feel overwhelmingly dangerous. By 2026, the concept of group death will definitely be dead.

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



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