A group of death in a multi-stage tournament is a group which is unusually competitive, because the number of strong competitors in the group is greater than the number of qualifying places available for the next phase of the tournament. Thus, in the group phase, one or more strong competitors in the "group of death" will necessarily be eliminated, who would otherwise have been expected to progress further in the tournament. The informal term was first used for groups in the FIFA World Cup finals. It is now also used in other association football tournaments and other sports.
After the draw for a tournament has been made, debates often arise about which of the preliminary groups is "the" group of death. This happens for several reasons: in part, from more general debates about the relative strengths of the various competitors; but, additionally, because there is no exact definition of the term "group of death". Sometimes the term simply means the group with the strongest competitors, implying there is always precisely one such group; other definitions allow for multiple groups of death, and for none at all. The term is sometimes derided as a journalistic cliché or oversimplification.
It was popularized after the draw for the 1986 FIFA World Cup when Uruguay manager Omar Borrás so described Group E, which included Uruguay, West Germany, Denmark, and Scotland. As with the 1970 group, this was the only one with all four teams from Europe and South America. The label was widely repeated by the English-language media. By the 1986 tournament rules, two or three of the four teams in each group would progress to the knockout phase; in the event, Scotland was the only team not to qualify from the prototypical "group of death". Uruguay were criticized for persistent foul play in the decisive match with Scotland; Borrás was suspended for retorting, "The Group of Death? Yes, there was a murderer on the field today. The referee."
Tournaments are often seeded to provide an even distribution of strong and weak competitors across all preliminary groups. However, in association football, the ranking methods used for seeding may be crude. In the World Cup, the usual strategy is for each group to contain one seeded team and three unseeded teams, the unseeded teams picked from separate regional confederations. Some CONCACAF, African and Asian teams are significantly stronger than others. The net result is that some groups may have stronger teams than others.
However, the label is usually applied in anticipation of the tournament rather than in retrospect. Simon Burnton comments, "Inevitably, one of the big teams involved gets so scared about being in the Group of Death that they play really badly, meaning not only that they go home in disappointment and disgrace, but that the group turns out not to be so very troublesome after all.". David Lacey said, "Draws may nominate a group of death but results decide its real mortality rating. France and Argentina found this out in Japan." Lacey also said, "There are groups of death and groups of death wishes. In Euro 2000 Group D looked daunting but was shrugged aside by Netherlands, the co-hosts, and France, the eventual champions, with the Czechs, runners-up in 1996, and the Danes, winners in 1992, offering scant resistance. Group A turned out to be the killer."
Fans may describe as the "group of death" any tough group which contains their favoured team. George Vecsey says, "In soccer, every nation always thinks it has been stiffed into the toughest pool, the Group of Death." In this sense, David Warren comments that a "top seeding in a finals group gives a country a good chance to advance and the best chance to avoid a so-called group of death".
There's also a countermovement part of the debate. After the final draw of the 2014 World Cup, the Belgian media spoke of a "fortunate group" for the 'Red Devils', while the French media spoke of "the most affordable" group for 'Les Bleus'. Swiss media spoke of the national team, part of Group E, as "far from being [in] the group of 'death'". At the same time Vicente del Bosque, head of the Spanish national football team (part of Group B, considered one of the groups of death), insisted that "Spain [is] not in [the] 'Group of Death'. We have to define it as complicated but I don't believe this is the Group of Death. There are others very hard. But our group is difficult."
The label "group of death" has been used in other sports than association football; for example:
1995 World Cup Group 3;2008 World Cup Group A The 2008 group was deliberately constructed by putting the top four seeds in one group, with three to qualify, to ensure more competitive matches in the first phase, and guarantee weaker sides a semi-final place.
"Group of death" has occasionally been used to characterise a qualifying group in some other way. The southern section preliminary round Group 5 of the 1990-91 Leyland DAF Cup had lowly teams replaying poorly-attended matches; after many postponements, Robert Pryce commented: "The Leyland Daf Cup Southern Section preliminary round's Group of Death has achieved almost total rigor mortis."
The toughest group in the World Cup qualifying competition is the Group of Death. For the 1998 qualifiers, group one takes the title with ease. Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia were drawn in group one. . . . There was, mercifully, no Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia drawn in the same group. But there was, as far as the others are concerned, the next worse thing: the Greeks. They share the Orthodox religion with the Serbs, and give them strong diplomatic support. Pity Denmark, the reigning European champions, who make up the group.
Occasionally, alternatives to "group of death" are proffered. Javier Clemente said of 1998 World Cup Group D, "This is not the group of death, as some people have said. It is the group of heart attacks" John Harrell said of 1994 World Cup Group E, "The characterization might be a bit harsh. Perhaps the 'Group of Surprises' is a better term."
Sometimes the excitement of a close contest between high-quality teams has suggested the positive "group of life" is more appropriate than "group of death". Of 2002 World Cup Group F, Paul Wilson said, "England's group is not so much the group of death as the group of life, for few others promise any drama" Of 2006 World Cup Group C, Gary Lineker said after Argentina's demolition of Serbia and Montenegro, "Argentina produced one of the great performances in recent World Cup history. The group of death has become the group of life."
^ abPaul, Ian (23 November 1992). "Dutch can live in the Milan 'Group of Death'". The Herald (Glasgow). p. 10. "If that notorious nickname of 1986, "The Group of Death," which was used to describe Scotland's section in the World Cup finals in Mexico, was the child of an over-enthusiastic hack, three of the teams in Group B of the Champions' League would consider it a mild moniker for their section."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^ abLovejoy, Joe (21 December 1993). "Republic miss comfort zone; Germany's easy group ride makes them clear favourites". The Independent (London). p. 32. "American television, leaving no cliche unturned, promptly christened it the group of death."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^ abcdHarrell, John (16 June 1994). "Mix of talent, tactics make for most intriguing quartet". USA Today. p. 8C. "Many refer to Group E at this summer's World Cup as the "Group of Death." It's the strongest by far of the six four-team alignments, and at least one well-regarded team thus will not advance to the second round. The characterization might be a bit harsh. Perhaps the "Group of Surprises" is a better term."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^ abHawkey, Ian (4 June 2006). "African dream lives in Ivory tower". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 4 December 2009. "The Group of Death has always been an ugly misnomer, although as every big tournament now seems obliged to identify its corpses early, the World Cup has to have one."
^Jenkins, Garry; Pedro Redig; Antonio Pires Soares (1998). The beautiful team: in search of Pelé and the 1970 Brazilians. Simon & Schuster. p. 22. ISBN0-684-81955-4. "Saldanha had no argument with the journalists who quickly christened the Group of Death."
^Motson, John; Nick Brownlee (2006). Motson's World Cup Extravaganza. Robson. p. 171. ISBN1-86105-936-1. "Group of Death - The term 'Group of Death' was first coined by the Mexican press in 1970 to describe Group 3"
^"México 1970" (in Spanish). El Mercurio Online. Associated Press. 2002. Retrieved 3 December 2009. "Se puede decir que el primer "Grupo de la Muerte" en la historia lo fue el 3"
^"Futbol". Hispano Americano; semanario de la vida y la verdad (in Spanish) (Mexico: Tiempo) 57: 66, 103. 1970.
^"Mundial". Razones (in Spanish) (Mexico: Decanova) (67): 59. 26 July 1982.
^"Brazil: the unfinished samba". Previous FIFA World Cups (FIFA). 26 July 2005. Retrieved 3 December 2009. "Only the top team in this group of death would qualify for the semi-finals."
^Lacey, David (15 November 1988). "Robson landed with a flight of fancy; David Lacey on England's Concorde trip to Saudi Arabia for a friendly in the Gulf which stretches the credibility gap". The Guardian. p. 18. "Omar Borras, who managed the Uruguayans in the 1986 World Cup, went into the tournament remarking that their first-round draw with West Germany, Scotland and Denmark was "the group of death""
^ ab"World Cup Briefs". United Press International. 19 May 1986. "West Germany will play in Group F, dubbed The Group of Death because of the strength of its four teams. The others are Uruguay, Scotland team and Denmark."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Lief, Fred (22 May 1986). "World Cup Roundup". United Press International. "Uruguay is part of the demanding Group E — known as the Group of Death — along with West Germany, Denmark and Scotland."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^ abChad, Norman (25 May 1986). "World's Eyes on Mexico: Month-Long Tournament Beginning May 31 Will Be Magnet for Hundreds of Million". Washington Post. p. B4. "Group E, comprising Denmark, Scotland, West Germany and Uruguay, has been labeled the "Group of Death" because of the strength of the teams."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Brown, Brian (1 June 1986). "All the World Cup's a stage for soccer epic". San Diego Union-Tribune. p. H-1. "Group E (Queretaro, Nezahualcoyotl) This has come to be known as El Grupo de la Muerte (The Group of Death) because three of the top 10 teams are in it."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Lief, Fred (14 June 1986). "Sports News". United Press International. "The game featured two teams from the Group of Death, so called because of the quality of the four squads. But the term assumed more sinister connotations as one tackle followed another."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Warshaw, Andrew (24 June 1986). "Sports News". Associated Press. "Then there was Alex Ferguson of Scotland, whose team had the misfortune of competing with Denmark, West Germany and Uruguay in what became known as the "Group of Death.""|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Lacey, David (9 December 1999). "Soccer: Nobody gets to be drawn until the fat guy sings - The Eternal City on the hopes, fears and ephemera surrounding this afternoon's World Cup lucky dip". The Guardian (London). "The Scots would be extremely unlucky to get a 1990 equivalent of Mexico's 'Group of death' when they found themselves facing Uruguay, West Germany and Denmark."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Gardner, Paul (1994). The simplest game: the intelligent fan's guide to the world of soccer (2nd ed.). Collier. p. 96. ISBN0-02-043225-9.
^Opik, Lembit (27 May 2008). "Help us choose our Euro 2008 team". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 December 2009. "We should back the underdog - Romania is in the group of death with France, Italy and the Netherlands, and they need all the help they can get."
^ ab"Tie with Italy gives Mexico top spot in 'group of death'; tying Norway, Charlton's Ireland team also advances". Mercury News (San Jose). 29 June 1994. p. 6F. "Group E was the "Group of Death," a group with no weaklings, a group in which any of the four teams could, on a given day, beat any other."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^ abChapman, Doug (28 June 1994). "Ireland will play short-handed in key match against Norway". Journal-Bulletin (Providence). p. 3B. "Group E - dubbed the "Group of Death" because of its top-to-bottom competitiveness"|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Powell, Jeff (16 June 1992). "Scotland head home with heads held high Breath of fresh air in an event choked by fear". Daily Mail (London). p. 42. "We've jumped out of what they called the group of death in 1986 into the group of certain death."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Traynor, James (8 June 1992). "Let's be brave and add a touch of arrogance to our challenge". The Herald (Glasgow). p. 8. "It was said before Scotland's participation in the finals of the 1986 World Cup that, having been drawn with Denmark, Germany and Uruguay, they had been placed in the Group of Death, but this time it could be said they are in the Group of Certain Death."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Leigh, John; David Woodhouse (2006). Football Lexicon (revised ed.). London: Faber and Faber. p. 90. ISBN0-571-23052-0. "Group of Death: A regular visitor to the language of football, this nice piece of hyperbole appears whenever World Cup draws are held, but can make an intermediate appearance at European Championships or other regional tournaments too. It is so familiar that commentators promptly debate which of the groups drawn might be the Group of Death, as though it were a title which has to be assigned to one of them"
^ abcVecsey, George (22 June 2006). "Simple Math for U.S.: Victory Is Only Option". New York Times. Retrieved 4 December 2009. "Reyna ... has maintained all along that the Americans were drawn into this year's Group of Death at the World Cup, even though Argentina and the Netherlands were drawn together in a different group. And the tangled results in the United States' group seem only to prove his point. ... The group is the only one of the eight four-team clusters to have all four teams in contention entering the final games."
^Mulligan, Mike; Diether Endlicher (17 July 1994). "Battle of the Titans; Brazil, Italy Still Tower Over Rest of the World". Sun-Times (Chicago). p. 18. "The draw with Mexico left the Italians in third place in the so-called Group of Death."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^ abHaydon, John (3 July 1994). "First-round games full of goals and upsets". Washington Times (Washington). p. C8. "Group E, otherwise known as the "Group of Death," lived up to its name. All four teams in the group - Mexico, Ireland, Italy and Norway - had a 1-1-1 record and four points each."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^O'Shea, Suzanne (29 June 1994). "Jackie's Heroes march to glory; Republic goes wild over World Cup success". Daily Mail (London). p. 1. "Group E, dubbed the 'group of death' because of the high calibre of its teams."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Mifflin, Lawrie (28 June 1994). "Death on the World Cup Express". New York Times (New York). p. B10. "the traditional nickname, "Group of Death""|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Reid, Scott M. (25 June 1994). "Mexico tops Ireland; Group E deadlocked All four teams have 3 points in 'Group of Death'". Journal and Constitution (Atlanta). p. D14. "The danger of Group E was recognized as soon as it was announced at the tournament draw last December. Italy, Ireland, Norway and Mexico were immediately dubbed members of "The Group of Death." The name stuck."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Reusse, Patrick (20 June 1994). "Uff da: Norway on quite a roll". Star Tribune (Minneapolis). p. 1C. "There are six first-round groups in the World Cup tournament. It has been a tournament tradition to look at the assignments and to refer to one of the six as the "Group of Death.""|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Alfano, George (5 June 1994). "U.S. tops Mexico before 91,123". Press Enterprise (Riverside). p. C7. "Mexico will play in the World Cup's Group E, which includes Italy, Ireland and Norway and is known as the "Group of Death" because three teams are ranked among the top 15 in the world."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Luxbacher, Joe (17 April 1994). "Here's World Cup team groupings". Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh). p. C2. "Group E: Italy, Ireland, Norway, Mexico. Probably the toughest group. Some analysts already are calling it the group of death, as all four teams are capable of advancing to the later rounds."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Ziegler, Mark (19 January 1994). "Fiesta expected tonight for soccer doubleheader". Union-Tribune (San Diego). p. D-1. "Some are calling it the "Group of Death," if only because at most three of the four can advance to the second round. Meaning: At least one of them won't."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Shane, Jeff (20 December 1993). "Group E: 'Group of Death'". United Press International. "Already, it's being labeled the Group of Death. Group E contains three of the top 10 teams in the current world ratings — No. 2 Italy, No. 4 Norway and No. 10 Ireland. Meanwhile, Mexico won the CONCACAF Gold Cup over the summer and made a very good showing at the Copa America."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^"Brazil drawn in a 'group of death', says coach Parreira". Las Vegas: Xinhua. 19 December 1993. "Brazil were drawn in the world cup group which coach Carlos Alberto Parreira called 'the group of death'. Brazil plays Russia, Cameroon and Sweden in Group B.""|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^AAP (21 December 1993). "Cup draw cruel for top guns". Courier-Mail. p. 35. "There is always one "group of death" in soccer's World Cups. In the US next year there may be two. making Brazil's Group B and Italy's Group E potentially the toughest."
^"Cup 'groups of death'". Herald Sun. Associated Press. 21 December 1993. "TWO "groups of death" emerged from the Nevada desert in yesterday's soccer World Cup draw. [...] The draw made Brazil's Group B and Italy's Group E the toughest."
^Ruibal, Sal (12 September 2007). "USA's group tied in knots after World Cup openers". USA Today. Retrieved 17 December 2009. "At the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup, they call Group B the Group of Death because its quartet of high-ranked and unpredictable teams are capable of defeating any opponent. . . . But after Tuesday's pair of gloomy, rain-drenched opening ties [i.e. draws], Group B has suddenly become sudden death."
^Jones, Stuart (14 June 1990). "Speculation not for Robson". The Times (Cagliari). "The Group of Death, as the Italians call the World Cup group confined to the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, promises to come to the most dramatic conclusion of the first round. The four teams are inseparable and, whatever the results this weekend, the permutations cannot be fully unravelled until the closing fixtures on June 21."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^"World Championship". Agence France Presse. 2 August 1994. "China was 17th at Barcelona and slotted in what coach Jiang Xingquan calls the group of death, against three teams China has never bested."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Wilbon, Michael (16 March 2010). "Tiger Woods at the Masters return, NCAA Tournament, NBA and more". The Chat House with Michael Wilbon. Washington Post. Retrieved 27 March 2010. "Georgetown and Maryland, of course, is in that Group of Death Midwest region where you've got Tennessee, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, a totally known but damn good Iowa State team. Why the NCAA Tournament would stack the region where the overall No. 1 is I don't know"
^Degerman, Eric (17 March 2010). "My chalky bracket ends in Jayhawk". Rub of the Green. Tri-City Herald. Retrieved 27 March 2010. "the Midwest bracket, dubbed "The Group of Death" by those who follow World Cup soccer"
^"In Brief". Herald Sun (Australia). 22 May 1995. "Carling insists that England's pool is "the group of death", rather than the section containing Australia, South Africa, Canada and Romania which already has been given that lurid tag"|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Palmer, Bryn (1 October 2001). "Falcons' fatal blow in Group of Death". The Guardian. p. A21.|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^O'Driscoll, Brian (7 October 2003). "A man born to take centre stage". The Guardian. p. 32. "[Ireland] are in the so-called Group of Death with Argentina and the host nation."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Ruddock, Alan (2 September 2007). "Let the beauty of rugby shine out in France". The Observer. Retrieved 3 December 2009. "If Ireland is in the inevitable group of death alongside France and Argentina, then England's is the group of attrition"
^Davies, Jonathan (8 October 1995). "Death or Glory!". Sunday Mirror. p. 65. "Wales tackle France in our opening fixture in what has chillingly been dubbed the Group of Death."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Collins, Nick Published (10 June 2009). "World Twenty20 Super Eights guide: West Indies". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 4 December 2009. "Having survived the “group of death” in the opening round, the West Indies find themselves in a similar position at the super eight stage"
^Pryce, Robert (12 January 1991). "Soccer Diary". The Guardian (London). p. 20.|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Glenn, Patrick (13 November 1991). "Roxburgh sure of delivery - Group Two: Scotland v San Marino". The Guardian (London). "I called this the group of death because there wasn't a big country to brighten it, to capture the imagination, to get people out of the house and into Hampden Park. Romania and Bulgaria have outstanding talents but they are not a draw. The Swiss are the same, emergent and improving, but not attractive. A France, an Italy, a Germany, even an England in our case, was needed to lift the thing. But we have one last chore and the Scotland team I wanted is here."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Minshull, Phil (1 December 1993). "Saudi soccer success in Qatar". The Middle East (Saudi Arabia) (N229): 40. ISSN0305-0734. "Western commentators dubbed the 13 day tournament in Qatar the "Group of Death" since fate had brought together six potentially volatile elements."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Fraser, Alan (22 October 1993). "The mother of all wars and the father of all football matches? Let's wait and see". Daily Mail (London). p. 78. "The Iraq and Iran footballers have been breakfasting together, chatting even, part of a bizarre logistical cocktail in which the so-called 'group of death' - also including Saudi Arabia, North and South Korea and Japan - have been billeted in the same hotel."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Kesterton, Michael (21 October 1993). "Social Studies". The Globe and Mail (Canada). "The six have been nicknamed the Group of Death, writes Mark Skipworth in The Sunday Times of London. Three of the six - Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia - have recently been at war and two others - North and South Korea - have never officially ended their state of conflict. (The sixth team is from Japan.)"|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^Mullin, John (13 December 1995). "It's War: World Cup squares up for the battle of the Balkans". The Guardian. p. 1.|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
^"Clemente's hopes may go up in puff of smoke". The Guardian. 24 June 1998. p. A5.
^"Sudden death in group of life". Irish Examiner. 23 June 2006. Retrieved 3 December 2009. "what had turned out to be the World Cup’s Group Of Life. The supporters of all four competing nations would have woken up in various cities in Germany yesterday morning with dreams of further glory in their minds."
^"Group H in detail". Scotland On Sunday. 19 May 2002. Retrieved 3 December 2009. "Tipped to make it through to the knockout stages in only their second World Cup thanks to a very favourable draw into the ‘Group of Life’"
^"England pay for past failures". Daily Telegraph. 28 November 2001. Retrieved 3 December 2009. "the Mexicans also gave a title to 1986's Group Six. England, Poland, Portugal and Morocco, the locals in Monterrey were fond of saying, was the `Group of Sleep'."[dead link]