The World Cup Group of Death: Myth or Death Sentence?

Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan
Oct 11 2013 Kansas City KS USA United States midfielder Landon Donovan 10 reacts after missing a shot on goal during the first half of the match against Jamaica at Sporting Park The United States won 2 0 Denny Medley USA TODAY Sports

It seems like in every major international tournament, one group is labelled a “Group of Death,” with all the media focus and attention pointed squarely in its direction.

It’s the one group in the tournament that features three or four strong sides that all expected to advance into the next round.  Those four teams are forced to face each other and battle it out for one of the two coveted spots at the top of the group. Two teams exit the group triumphant; the other two are eliminated.

Is the group of death something that major sides should be concerned about, though?

Let’s take a look at the so-called “groups of death” from major international tournaments in the last 12 years. In the FIFA World Cup in 2002, held in Japan and Korea, Group F was labelled the group of death, with England, Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria grouped together. Argentina famously faltered and Sweden and England went through.

In the UEFA Euro Cup in 2004, eventual winners Greece and finalists Portugal squared off in Group A, alongside Spain and Russia. The former duo knocked out the latter and saw each other again in the final. Two years later in the German World Cup of 2006, Group C was called the group of death, with the Netherlands, Argentina, Ivory Coast and Serbia and Montenegro drawn together.

The Netherlands advanced alongside Argentina, but were thrown right back into another group of death in the 2008 Euro Cup, along with Italy, Romania and France. In that group, France finished last, but Holland and Italy breezed on through.

In the last World Cup, Portugal was drawn into a group of death again, facing the Ivory Coast (two “groups of death” in a row for Didier Drogba!) North Korea and Brazil. Portugal and Brazil advanced from Group G but crashed out soon after.

Finally, in the last European championships of 2012, Portugal once again ended up in a group of death alongside Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Germany and Portugal advanced, but Arjen Robben and the rest of the Netherlands suffered for it.

In recent history, Portugal, the Ivory Coast and the Netherlands seem to be drawn into groups of death more often than many other countries. However, in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, things won’t be much easier; Portugal has been drawn into the next group of death along with Germany, Ghana and the United States; the Netherlands face Spain, Chile and Australia; finally, the Ivory Coast is paired with Colombia, Greece and Japan.

It has not been an easy road for Robben, Drogba or Cristiano Ronaldo in the last 10 years, it seems!

So is the group of death a myth?

For major sides, indeed it is – in almost every one of these groups, the expected winners advance without many hiccups; the only time major teams are eliminated is when three of them are drawn into the same group. For example, Group C of the 2008 Euros saw France fail to advance against the Netherlands and Italy. In the 2002 World Cup, Argentina finished third and England and Sweden moved on.

The major upsets in international tournaments rarely happen in groups of death; instead, you’ll see big teams eliminated in relatively easy looking groups where bigger powerhouse teams take the opposition lightly.

In 2010, Italy failed to advance in Group F, but Paraguay and Slovakia did. France, too, was eliminated in Group A having failed to perform against Mexico and Uruguay.

This isn’t the only time France has come up short in an “easy” group, though. In 2002, France finished last, picking up only one point in Group A. In that group, Denmark and Senegal went through. Portugal also faltered in the 2002 World Cup, in what was called an easy group consisting of South Korea, the United States and Poland.

More big teams are eliminated in easier groups than in this fabled group of death. Frankly, the very idea of a group of death is flawed in that any eventual World Cup winner will have to take on major opposition anyway. The group of death is rarely a worry for major sides; instead, it’s a death sentence for smaller countries that are drawn against multiple behemoths instead of just one.

Unfortunately, this time around, the United States has been handed that sentence.

Facing Germany, Ghana, and Portugal, the U.S. will face its toughest challenge in the last two decades. That Jurgen Klinsmann is the head coach of the U.S. will be a major storyline considering an upcoming encounter against his native Germany, a team he coached in the 2006 World Cup. However, Germany is a heavy favorite to advance (and even win the title), and Portugal, with Ronaldo at its head, is a powerhouse side as well. Ghana is no pushover, either.

It will take a gargantuan effort from Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and the rest of the United States in order to come out of this group alive. There are no “easy” games in such a group but this is soccer, and the beauty of this game is that, as history has shown, anything can happen.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup Groups Are:

Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon

Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia

Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan

Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy

Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria

Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States

Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea Republic

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Armen Bedakian
Armen Bedakian is a soccer writer covering every aspect of the game in Major League Soccer and around the world. I love a crunching slide tackle, but can't stand a bad offside call. Follow me on Twitter - @ArmenBedakian