Whenever a World Cup rolls around, pundits and fans predictably focus on a few recurring stories. Which country has the best chance of going the distance? Which player will be the star of the tournament? Who will win the Golden Boot? And the Ballon d’Or? Will there be a ‘Hand of God’ type on-court controversy that will define the tournament for years to come? Why do we watch this stupid sport – which always seems to break our hearts – anyway?
But perhaps the most interesting (although often trivial!) question is: Which group is the tournament death group? It’s a fun question, one that has the ability to stir up a lot of controversy (and wonder if the Death Band is actually just a myth). But if you’re looking for straight answers, you probably won’t find any this time around.
Is it Group B – comprising England, Iran, USA and Wales – which has the highest average world ranking as defined by FIFA? What about Group E, which features two of the last three winners (Spain and Germany) alongside two brave underdogs – Costa Rica and Japan – with their own devious world rankings? Then there’s Group G: Brazil currently sit first in the world rankings – and are the overwhelming favorites to win it all – while Serbia and Switzerland are each in the top 25 in the world. And we would be silly to forget Cameroon. , who finished third in the last Africa Cup of Nations and is set for a strong showing in Qatar.
Or is Group C the group of death because it includes Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski? They’re both old men now, but they’re still two of the best players in the world – and two of the best players to ever kick a football, period. Does a battle between all-time greats chasing the game’s top prize for (probably) the last time qualify as worthy of Group of Death? We are not sure!
What we’re trying to say is: Choosing a group of death is hard – and not always easy.
To be fair to the 2022 World Cup, that has always been the case more often than not too. Picking a group of kills is more of an art form than a science. Of course, there were years when it was easier to pin down than others, like it was before the 1970 World Cup. In Mexico 70, Group 3 – they used numbers rather than letters at the time – included England (reigning champions) and Brazil (perennial tournament favourites). In this rendition, an aging but still quite brilliant Pelé led the Seleção through a difficult group stage and, ultimately, to the ultimate price. This remains the highest rated group since 1970 according to Elo ratings, and by some margin. So in this case, the eye test matched the later data.
|1970||3||England, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Romania||1959|
|2014||B||Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia||1931|
|1978||3||Brazil, Spain, Austria, Sweden||1923|
|1974||2||Brazil, Yugoslavia, Scotland, Zaire||1915|
|1978||1||Italy, Argentina, Hungary, France||1910|
|2022||g||Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon||1901|
|2014||g||Germany, Portugal, United States, Ghana||1896|
|2002||F||Argentina, England, Sweden, Nigeria||1895|
|1978||4||Netherlands, Scotland, Iran, Peru||1894|
|1994||E||Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Norway||1889|
|2018||E||Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Costa Rica||1888|
|1982||6||Brazil, Soviet Union, Scotland, New Zealand||1885|
|1986||E||West Germany, Denmark, Scotland, Uruguay||1885|
|2022||E||Spain, Germany, Japan, Costa Rica||1885|
|2018||B||Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco||1884|
But this has not always been the case. Take 1982, for example. There was no clearly defined group of death in the first group stage, but there was maybe the group of death to end all the groups of death in the second, along with Italy, Brazil and defending champions Argentina. Italy qualified with a perfect record and then beat West Germany in the final at the Bernabeu in Madrid. Again, though: there was hardly a clear group of death to start the tournament with, and identifying them in advance is kind of the point of death groups. We want to know those answers right from the jump!
So with all that historical context in mind, let’s look at what the numbers have to say about the 2022 field. Specifically, we used Elo to rank each of the 32 teams participating in Qatar, and then ranked each group based on the average strength of its limbs. And you may have already noticed in the historical Elo chart above that Group G is the strongest group in this year’s World Cup, followed by Group E.
|g||Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Cameroon||1901|
|E||Spain, Germany, Japan, Costa Rica||1885|
|F||Belgium, Croatia, Canada, Morocco||1868|
|VS||Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia||1849|
|D||France, Denmark, Australia, Tunisia||1846|
|B||England, Iran, United States, Wales||1831|
|H||Portugal, Uruguay, South Korea, Ghana||1816|
|A||Netherlands, Ecuador, Senegal, Qatar||1808|
In fact, Group G is Elo’s sixth strongest group since 1970. It’s not exactly the Grupo de la Muerta that we saw in 1970, but that’s not an easy group to navigate either. However, when looking at the difference between Group G’s average Elo and the rest of the pack – versus how historical death groups compare to their fields – it’s clear that 2022 is breaking the trend. long-term increasingly lopsided World Cup group draws. over the years. After four decades of constant widening, the gap between the tournament’s weakest and toughest groups has closed this year.
|Year||Best group||Avg. Elo||Worst group||Avg. Elo||Difference|
So, by this metric, even the least deadly group of 2022 – Group A, comprising the Netherlands, Ecuador, Senegal and of course host country Qatar – are still relatively deadlier than usual. .
But what does it mean to be in the Death Group anyway? Does it really affect a team’s chances of winning the World Cup? Or is it just an arbitrary (albeit amusing) rhetorical device that pundits and fans like to use to drum up interest in a big tournament like the World Cup?
Looking at Elo’s death groups dating back to the 1970 World Cup, only two teams have won the world’s most prestigious football award after muddying the waters in the tournament’s toughest group – this legendary team from Brazil in 1970 and a great team from Spain in 2010. That said, three others reached the final out of the Group of Death and lost. So in the 13 World Cups since 1970, a total of five finalists have come from so-called groups of death – which is actually more than the number we would expect (4.3) if each group had a equal chance of sending a team to the final. While placement in a death squad isn’t a breath of fresh air, it’s not exactly a death sentence either. Like we said: death bands are complicated.
In that 1970 stacked bunch, Pelé was reborn and determined to prove to the world that he was unwashed – that he was still, in fact, as good as the phenom who burst onto the Brazilian scene at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. On the other hand, England have retained significant elements of their veteran core who won the 1966 World Cup at Wembley and have been imbued with a crop of new talent. Things didn’t work out so well for England – they were beaten 3-2 in the quarter-finals by West Germany after leading 2-0 at half-time – but Pele and Brazil have gone down in history. It was the first death band, and that’s because it was easily identifiable as a band no one (probably not even Brazil or England) wanted to be a part of given the pedigree that was on display.
We haven’t had such an obvious death squad since – and we certainly haven’t this year. It’s hard to say if we will in the future either, especially if FIFA continues its apparent commitment to balanced groups in the future. And that’s probably fine – it’s too hard to define the group of death anyway.