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If we are talking about the World Cup then we are going to be talking about the ‘Group of Death’ - one of the most beloved and talked about themes leading up to every major soccer tournament. the Group of Death isn't an official title, of course. In the World Cup teams are arranged into groups of four, and the top two teams after all of those four teams have played each other move on to the elimination rounds. In most groups it seems clear which teams are the favorites to advance before the tournament starts. Occasionally, though, there is a group in which there are more quality teams - teams clearly of second round caliber or beyond - than there are spots to qualify. That's a Group of Death. Fans who support a team in a Group of Death feel sorry for themselves because there will inevitably be worse teams moving onto the second round than the one or two that don't survive the Group of Death.
In the 2010 World Cup the Group of Death is, in most eyes, Group G. Brazil is Brazil, and are obviously a prime contender not just to move on but to win it all. Portugal was fourth in the last World Cup and has arguably the world's best player in Cristiano Ronaldo. Ivory Coast is the best of the African squads, and they have a brilliant international lineup led by superstar Didier Drogba. there is a lot of pressure on the African teams playing in the first African World Cup, and before the draw was made Ivory Coast was seen by most as the team with the most potential. All three of those teams deserve to move on. There are some who argue that this isn't a true Group of Death for a couple of reasons. First, the fourth team in the group, North Korea, is quite probably the worst team in the entire field, so there is only one good team that is going to be left out. Second, Brazil is on a different level than the other two teams, so the group is really just two teams playing for one spot. The lore surrounding groups of death often grows after the fact when the groups are hard fought and two teams lose out despite playing well. Still, Group G is the toughest in the field, and the only one with a certainty of serious heartbreak.
In 2006, the Group of Death depended on your perspective. I thought that it was Group C - Argentina and Netherlands are world powers, the eternally unlucky Ivory Coast was stuck with superpowers again, and Serbia and Montenegro is a tough team on the rise. Others said that it was Group E, with Italy, Ghana, the Czech Republic, and the U.S. all having legitimate claims at belonging in the second round. In 2002 it was more straightforward - Group F was a nightmare for all four teams involved, including Sweden, England, Nigeria, and Argentina.
It's interesting to look at these groups, but it's far more interesting and relevant to see who won the groups and what they did after. That's where we might learn something that can help us with dealing with handicapping this year's Group of Death.
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In 2006 Netherlands and Argentina emerged from Group C. Netherlands lost to Portugal in the round of 16, while Argentina beat Mexico before losing a close one to Germany. Both teams were probably better than their showing, so you could argue on that small sample size that playing in a Group of Death causes teams to exert too much energy early on to their detriment in later rounds.
Looking at Group E, though, shatters that theory. Ghana advanced but had the misfortune of meeting Brazil in the second round and bowed out. Italy, though, clearly benefited from the Group of Death experience - they rose the momentum of their group win all the way to the championship. In 2002 Sweden and England advanced. Sweden lost an ugly game to Senegal, and England beat Denmark convincingly before losing a tough one to Brazil. Sweden's loss shouldn't have happened, but there is no shame for England in losing to the eventual champion.
Going back to 1994, Italy again survived a ridiculously tight Group of Death - all four teams wound up with four points after the round robin - and went on to lose in the finals. The term was originally coined in 1970 to describe Group 3, which Brazil and England survived. Brazil went on to win the tournament, while England was knocked out in the next round. In short, it doesn't really seem that the Group of Death has a big impact on what happens in subsequent rounds. Teams can thrive or disappoint after a Group of Death just like they can out of any other group. Italy seems to particularly thrive on the pressure, so maybe you could argue that it's bad luck for them that they wound up in the ridiculously easy Group F.
So, it doesn't seem that the Group of Death concept is going to prove particularly useful as a handicapping tool. It's still useful for one thing, though - all of the speculation and debate about the group is a good way to fill the endless period of time between the announcement of the draw and the start of play.