World Cup draw: Is there a Group of Death?

Did these guys miss out on the World Cup this year?

With a fair slice of luck, the United States dodged the Group of Death in yesterday’s World Cup draw. Mexico too managed to get into a very manageable group by being drawn with the hosts, Uruguay, and France. So with by far the two best teams from the draw’s weakest pot out of the running, is there really a Group of Death in this year’s tournament?

My criteria for the Group of Death are that it must have both three teams thought of as legitimate quarterfinal contenders and four teams that could reasonably qualify for the second round. That may be a pretty high bar, but we’re talking about The Group of Death here, not just a tough group. Some argue that the only requirement is that there be more strong contenders than there are qualifying places. But that doesn’t seem to me to be tough enough because the nature of group play is that there is often a real competition for the two places.

Some of the greatest Groups of Death stretch back into World Cup lore, with the 1958 pairing of Brazil, England, the USSR, and Austria. Or the widely recognized worst ever Group of Death, the 1982 second group stage (no longer in use) of Italy, Argentina, and Brazil with only one of those teams qualifying for the semi-finals.

Most of the attention after this year’s draw is on Group G, with world #1 Brazil, world #5 Portugal, and world #16 Cote d’Ivoire. No one will doubt the star power in this group, with Kaka, Robinho, Ronaldo, and Didier Drogba. Brazil and Portugal are certainly quarterfinal material and the Cote d’Ivoire has a strong team playing on African soil, they could easily make it to the last eight. So is this the Group of Death? I think not, because despite all this talent and potential, the fourth team is North Korea, currently world #84. There is virtually no chance they would qualify for the second round from any group, let alone one this difficult. Group G is not the Group of Death.

Group D, with Germany, Australia, Serbia, and Ghana is certainly one with four teams that could make it into the second round. Serbia was in the 2006 version of the Group of Death and has a host of solid players. Both Australia and Ghana made the second round just last tournament, and while they probably aren’t as good now as the 2006 version, they are still legit second round contenders. Germany, though is the only real world soccer power and is likely the only team from this group anyone would put in the quarterfinals in their bracket. Again, not the Group of Death.

How about Group E, with the Netherlands, Japan, Denmark, and Cameroon? This looks a lot like Group D, four teams that could conceivably make the second round (with Japan the weakest), but little star power and only the Netherlands likely quarterfinalists. Same thing in Group B, with Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria, and Greece; tough and very competitive, but not enough top teams to make it a genuine Group of Death. Just like Group H, with Spain clearly on top but the other three, Honduras, Chile, and Switzerland all capable of making the next round but probably no further.

So this 2010 tournament lacks a genuine Group of Death, but there doesn’t have to be a Group of Death in every tournament – in fact, that would cheapen it. But what this draw lacks in one deadly group it certainly makes up for with several very even and intensely competitive groups. There are going to be great games every day for two weeks during the first round of the 2010 World Cup – and of, course, we do get to watch the Brazilians, Portuguese, and Ivoirians battle it out for those two spots in the second round. Can’t believe its still more than six months away!

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