When the World Cup draw is announced every four years, fans’ eyes are immediately drawn to the loaded groups. The stacked groups. The name-brand groups.
The Groups of Death.
While some try to force that distinction onto certain groups, the fact remains that at each tournament finals, you can apply the tag to at least one group with little or no mental gymnastics.
So which ones have been the toughest historically?
First, a caveat: From 1930 to 1978, the World Cup finals never had more than 16 teams, which means each group was essentially chock full of the planet’s best. The term “Group of Death” wasn’t coined until 1970, when the Mexican press dubbed Group 3 a “Grupo de la Muerte.”
We’ll include that one for argument’s sake, a token recognition of the prior era — and also, to be fair, because it was really, really tough. We’ll also take a look at three other true Groups of Death, and four others that received the distinction but didn’t quite live up to it.
Toughest Groups of Death
Group 3, 1970
Headlined by defending world champion England and Pele-led Brazil, it’s no wonder this group prompted such strong reactions. The other two teams were Czechoslovakia, the runner-up in 1962, and a promising young Romanian side. Brazil and England advanced, with the Brazilians claiming their third world title in four editions and England bowing out in extra time against eventual third-place finisher West Germany.
Group C, 1982
This World Cup was unique, as it took the 12 teams that advanced from the group stage and split them into four groups for a second round before moving to the semifinals. So it’s kind of cutting corners to include this group, but then again, every team in the regular group stages was good enough to advance to that point through qualifying. So this is the same thing, only one round later. Besides, this group featured the reigning champion (Argentina) and the team that would lift the trophy that summer (Italy). And the third team? Oh nobody, just Brazil. The Italians won both their matches by a single goal to advance, then won the remaining two matches by two goals apiece.
Group E, 1986
This is the group that really popularized the term “Group of Death.” Uruguay manager Omar Borras dubbed it such after seeing his team, twice world champions themselves, were drawn against West Germany, Denmark and Scotland. It’s one of the rare groups to have every team from either Europe or South America, and West Germany went on to finish as runner-up before triumphing at the World Cup four years later. Denmark, then in its prime, topped the group with three wins, while Uruguay also advanced.
Group B, 2014
Two other groups tried to lay claim to the Group of Death in Brazil, but this one had the best argument. Headliner Spain was at the tail end of its historic run and entered as the reigning world and European champion, while the Netherlands would go on to finish third that summer. Chile’s golden generation, which would capture Copa America titles the following two summers, was just coming into its own as well. The only lightweight was Australia, but there were enough heavyweights to earn the deathly moniker.
Groups of Death that don’t quite stack up
Group D, 1998
This one looked much better on paper than on the pitch. Spanish manager Javier Clemente even refuted notions it was a Group of Death, calling it a “Group of Life” instead. His Spaniards underwhelmed, as they routinely did in the 20th century, and Bulgaria looked like a shell of the squad that finished fourth in 1994. Africa’s reigning power Nigeria won the group, while Paraguay also advanced thanks largely to the stellar play of co-Goalkeeper of the Tournament Jose Luis Chilavert. Neither advanced past the Round of 16.
Group E, 2006
This group gets points because it produced the eventual champion, but Italy played its characteristically defensive, unadventurous style to reach the summit. The United States, coming off its best performance in modern World Cup history in 2002, laid a giant egg, while the Czechs also underachieved. The other team to advance was Ghana, which got smacked by Brazil in the Round of 16. So yeah, this group wasn’t exactly scary.
Group G, 2010
The strength of this group was Brazil and Portugal, both of whom were top-five in the FIFA world rankings at the time. Those can be iffy, however, and neither side reached the quarterfinals after advancing. Ivory Coast, meanwhile, had a collection of stars that were better than the sum of the whole, as the Ivorians hadn’t finished better than fourth at the previous two African Cup of Nations. Oh, and North Korea was the fourth team, which basically represented three free points. Group of Death? Pass.
Group D, 2014
The big names were there: Italy, England, Uruguay. And none of them topped the group, as Costa Rica shocked everyone by winning twice and drawing once. England’s old guard earned a paltry point, which set off a rebuild of the program, while Italy lost twice and failed to advance. Uruguay finished second but was quickly dismissed by Colombia in the knockout stages.