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Analysing Groups of Death

It seems every World Cup has at least one "group of death" with at least two strong teams pitted against each other.

Yet perhaps the most relevant question about such groups -- beyond their capacity for high drama -- is whether it actually matters for the best teams beyond the threat of a shortened mortality. There is actually some evidence that if the group of death doesn't kill you, it can ultimately make you stronger.

The "Group of Death" phrase itself was first written in 1970 by Mexican journalists, but it was former Uruguay manager Omar Barros who best captured that sense of dread. After the coach saw that his side was drawn with West Germany, Denmark and Scotland in the 1986 World Cup, he spoke about "El grupo de la muerte."

Barros did have a rather novel, if notorious, approach to keeping his team alive in the tournament. They lost many admirers by resorting to a hugely physical approach during Mexico '86. Though Uruguay's run ended in a forgettable second-round defeat to Argentina, their bruising cameo (Jose Batista still holds the World Cup record for a first-minute red card versus Scotland) has lasted in the memory as one of the World Cup's more contentious storylines.

This, of course, is one of main values of a Group of Death. At a point in a tournament when teams have yet to reach their stride, these extremely concentrated pools provide an exciting and enticing element of frisson.

Of course, Groups of Death have seen some significant casualties over the years: England 1958, Spain 1962, France 1966, France 1978, USSR 1990, Spain 1998 and -- most surprisingly -- Marcelo Bielsa's Argentina in 2002.

Since the round-robin group format was first set up in the 1958 World Cup, there have been a total of 15 "first-round groups" (for the sake of fairness, the "second stage" groups from 1974-82 have been excluded) that can be given the aforementioned tag.   From those groups of death, there have been seven winners, five runners-up and two other semifinalists.

As the table above shows, it is quite a successful return, and one that potentially points to something more complex than just the fact that the best teams will inevitably go further.

It does seem possible that harder challenges early on serve to hone teams for the more consequential matches toward the end of the tournament.

Consider that very first group of death in 1958, or "the battle of the giants" (giganternas kamp), as the Swedish hosts called it.

Ahead of the final game of the first round, Brazil not only had the pressure of needing to beat a fine USSR side, but also were dealing with a lifetime of   failing to lift the trophy they craved most.

It was a daunting situation, so manager Vicente Feola decided, finally, to go all-out. At last abandoning caution, he introduced Garrincha and a 17-year-old called Pele to his team. The immediate result was what L'Equipe famously described as "the greatest three minutes ever played," and led to more than 50 years of the world being blown away by Brazil.

"Remember", Feola said to playmaker Didi, "the first pass goes to Garrincha."

Within 60 seconds, the winger had beaten Boris Kuznetsov four times, left Yuri Voinov on the ground, and smashed the post. A minute later, Pele hit the crossbar before Vava scored from an exquisite Didi pass.

Although such transcendent talent made Brazil's rise inevitable, it is tantalising to think that history might have taken a slightly different turn if Feola hadn't been confronted with such an intense situation. By the semifinals, at the very least, that side was a fully functioning and fluid unit.

Subsequent Groups of Death have had similar effects. Italy were ready for almost anything after the razor's edge rigours of 1994 -- they finished third in a group which saw all four teams (Mexico, Ireland and Norway) collect four points and qualified as the last of the four third-placed teams to sneak through -- and displayed admirable resilience in every round until the final.

Meanwhile, in 1966, the belief began for Alf Ramsey's England when they were able to properly jell in the problematic opening round. Facing Uruguay, France and Mexico, the initial signs were of struggle after a 0-0 draw with Uruguay (along with Spain in 2010, the only champions not to win their first game of the tournament). But two 2-0 wins sealed progress and sent the Three Lions on to success. It is proof that new life can come from the Group of Death, but only if you first survive it.


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