Each time a World Cup rolls around,1 pundits and fans predictably focus on a few recurring narratives. What country has the best odds to go the distance? Which player will be the breakout star of the tournament? Who will win the Golden Boot? What about the Golden Ball? Will there be a “Hand of God”-like on-field controversy that defines 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 (if often futile!) question of all is: Which group is the tournament’s Group of Death? It’s a fun question, one that has the ability to drum up plenty of controversy (and make some wonder if the Group of Death is actually just a myth). But if you’re looking for clear answers, you probably won’t find any this time around.
Is it Group B — featuring England, Iran, the U.S. and Wales — which has the highest average world ranking as defined by FIFA? What about Group E, which features two of the past three winners (Spain and Germany) alongside two plucky underdogs — Costa Rica and Japan — with sneaky high world rankings of their own? Then there’s Group G: Brazil currently ranks first in the world rankings — and is the odds-on favorite to win the whole damn thing — while Serbia and Switzerland each rank in the world’s top 25. And we’d be foolish to forget about Cameroon, which finished third at the most recent African Cup of Nations and is primed for a strong showing in Qatar.
Or is Group C the Group of Death because it features 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 soccer ball, period. Does a battle between all-time greats chasing the game’s top prize for (probably) the last time qualify as Group of Death-worthy? We’re not sure!
What we’re trying to say is: Picking a Group of Death is hard — and not always straightforward.
To be fair to the 2022 World Cup, that’s historically been the case more often than not, too. Picking a Group of Death is more of an art form than a science. Sure, there were years when it was easier to pin down than others, as was the case before the 1970 World Cup. 2 At Mexico ‘70, Group 3 — they used numbers rather than letters back then — contained England (the reigning champs) and Brazil (perennial tournament favorites). In that rendition, an aging but still-brilliant-enough Pelé led the Seleção through a difficult group stage and, eventually, to the ultimate prize. That remains the highest-rated group since 1970 according to Elo ratings, and by some margin. So in that instance, the eye test matched up with the subsequent 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 that hasn’t always been the case. Take 1982, for example. There wasn’t a clear-cut Group of Death in the first group stage, but there was perhaps the Group of Death to end all Groups of Death in the second,3 featuring Italy, Brazil and the reigning champs, Argentina. Italy got through with a perfect record, and went on to spank West Germany in the final at the Bernabeu in Madrid. Again, though: There was hardly a clear Group of Death to start the tournament, and identifying them beforehand is sort of the whole point of Groups of Death. 4 We want to know these answers from the jump!
So with all of 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 members. And you may have already noticed in the historical Elo table above that Group G is the strongest group at 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|
|C||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|
As a matter of fact, Group G is the sixth-strongest group by Elo since 1970. It’s not exactly the Grupo de la Muerte that we saw in 1970, but it’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 field — relative to how historical Groups of Death compared with their fields — it’s clear that 2022 breaks with the long-term trend of World Cup group draws getting more imbalanced over the years. After four decades of steadily widening, the gap between the weakest and hardest groups at the tournament has closed this year.
|Year||Best Group||Avg. Elo||Worst Group||Avg. Elo||Gap|
So by that measure, even the least-deadly group of 2022 — Group A, featuring the Netherlands, Ecuador, Senegal and of course, the host country of Qatar — is still relatively deadlier than usual.
But what does it mean to be in the Group of Death anyway? Does it really affect a team’s chances of winning the World Cup? Or is it just an arbitrary (if amusing) rhetorical device pundits and fans like to use to drum up interest going into a big tournament like the World Cup?
Looking at Elo’s Groups of Death dating back to the 1970 World Cup, only two teams have won the world’s most prestigious soccer prize after grinding things out in the tournament’s toughest group — that legendary Brazil team in 1970, and a generationally great Spain team in 2010. That said, three others have 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’d expect (4.3) if every group had an equal chance of sending a team to the final. While placement in a Group of Death is not a breath of fresh air, it isn’t exactly a death sentence, either. Like we said: Groups of Death are complicated.
In that stacked group from 1970, Pele was resurgent and hellbent on proving to the world that he wasn’t washed-up — that he was still, in fact, as earth-shatteringly gifted as the phenom who burst onto the scene for Brazil at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. On the other hand, England retained important pieces of its veteran core that won the 1966 World Cup at Wembley, 5 and was imbued with a crop of new talent.6 Things didn’t work out so great for England — it was bounced 3-2 in the quarterfinal by West Germany after having been up 2-0 at halftime — but Pele and Brazil made history. It was the first Group of Death, and that’s because it was easily identifiable as a group that nobody (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 Group of Death since — and we certainly don’t this year. It’s hard to say whether we will in the future, either — especially if FIFA continues its apparent commitment to balanced groups going forward. And that’s probably fine — it’s too hard to define the Group of Death anyway.
Jay Boice contributed research.