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Pele and Brazil won the World Cup after traversing the Group of Death in 1970. ((Associated Press))

The "Group of Death." The phrase brings up images of frantic clashes between soccer powers in the early stages of a big tournament, culminating in an unavoidable and extremely painful early exit for one (or more) of soccer's elite.

And it also really helps sports writers build World Cup hype.

Specific definitions vary from person to person, but generally a Group of Death loops several top-flight soccer sides together in the preliminary stages of a tournament, ensuring that at least one big contender will be knocked out in the early stages, with the survivors too worn out to make any noise in the next rounds.

There's always been a Group of Death at the World Cup since the first tournament in 1930, one group that's been harder for teams to progress from than the others. But the phrase "Group of Death" only became a part of regular soccer parlance until 1986 or 1970, depending on what you read and who you talk to.

Some say that Mexican journalists first coined the phrase in 1970 during the World Cup in their home country.

England, the defending champions, was drawn into a group with the 1962 runners-up from the former Czechoslovakia, the eventual winners from Brazil, and Romania, spurring the Mexican press to label Group 3 the grupo de la muerte (Group of Death in Spanish).

However, most experts agree that Uruguay manager Omar Borras popularized the term after the 1986 World Cup draw, and some even give him credit for the phrase's first usage.

His reigning South American champions were drawn with pre-tournament favourite West Germany, European semifinalist Denmark, and the always-difficult Scots.

For every tournament since then, media pundits and fans have debated at length as to whether their team was in the Group of Death at the World Cup.

But is it really the tournament death knell that media and fans have made it out to be, or is it actually beneficial for teams to have an early trial by fire, toughening them up for the increased tension in the later stages?

We decided to find out, and here's what we came up with.

The results

Out of 32 teams to advance past the Group of Death since 1930:

  • 16 teams were knocked out of the tournament at the next stage (round of 16, quarter-finals, second group) with three more failing to advance to the medal round (19 total)
  • 2 teams finished in fourth place (Italy 1978, England 1990)
  • 2 teams finished in third place (Chile 1962, Poland 1974)
  • 3 teams finished in second place (Argentina 1930, West Germany 1986, Italy 1994)
  • 3 teams have won the World Cup (Brazil 1958, 1970, Argentina 1978)

Points of interest

  • From 1930-1994, at least one team from the Group of Death advanced to the medal round in every tournament save two (1954, 1982)
  • Since 1994, no team that has advanced past the Group of Death has made it to the medal round
  • The most successful Group of Death survivors came in 1978, when Italy placed fourth and Argentina won
  • Only the two South American powers have emerged from the Group of Death and gone on to win the World Cup (Brazil in 1958 and 1970, Argentina in 1978)

NOTE: Since the group format was abandoned in the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, there was no Group of Death in those tournaments. In 1950, due to withdrawals from some soccer powers there was no real Group of Death in the preliminary round.

Summary

Surviving the Group of Death normally meant good things for one of the advancing teams until 1998, and it's been a killer ever since. And even then, you're a long shot to win it all unless you're either Argentina or Brazil.

Mind you, there are some caveats to keep in mind: the results only work if we assume there's only one Group of Death per tournament and that you agree with some of the Groups of Death we picked.

Which is why we're blowing this notion out of the water when we look at the upcoming World Cup in South Africa next week.

World Cup Groups of Death since 1930

1930 - Uruguay

Group 1

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Argentina  10  +6 
Chile  +2 
France  +1 
Mexico  13  -9 

This is the unofficial first Group of Death. Even in the salad days of soccer — the World Cup's infancy when England refused to participate — Argentina, Chile, France and Mexico were formidable forces. What's more, this was the most exciting group of the first World Cup with 23 goals scored.

Result: Argentina strolled through the group while Chile missed their chance to qualify after losing 3-1 to La Albiceleste in the group's final match. Argentina went on to demolish an upstart America side 6-1 in the semi-finals before losing to Uruguay 4-2 in the final.

A change of format

The three World Cups after the inaugural tournament were not formatted in the familiar group stage then knockout format — the present design of FIFA's showpiece.  In Italy 1934 and France 1938 every country faced its demise from the onset as the competition was a structured in a single game knock-out format.

Interestingly, Vittorio Pozzo's Italy won both tournaments.

1950 - Brazil

Final Round

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Uruguay 2 +2 5
Brazil 14  +10 
Sweden 6 11  -5
Spain 11  -7 

Before the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, several prominent countries withdrew (Argentina, France, India, Turkey and Scotland) and the tournament became the only one to be decided by three group stages. Because of the withdrawals, there was no preliminary Group of Death, so this one doesn't really count. But we're mentioning it anyway, because the final group was an absolute killer for the host side.

The winners from each group — Brazil, Spain, Sweden and Paraguay — met in a four team final round robin with the top team taking world soccer's biggest prize. Brazil entered the final match needing only to tie Uruguay in order to win its first World Cup.

Instead, Alcides Ghiggia shocked Brazil and gave Uruguay its second World Cup after he drove the ball beneath keeper Barbosa and secured a historic 2-1 victory. Sixty years on, Brazilian grandparents and parents still pass on the hurt of that final match to their children — continuously reliving the darkest day in the country's sports history.

1954 - Switzerland

Group 4

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Switzerland 2 0 1 6 4 +2 4
England 1 1 0 6 4 +2 3
Italy 1 0 2 6 7 -1 2
Belgium 0 1 1 5 8 -3 1

The host nation Switzerland were a tough side to beat and the all-confident English were determined to win a world title to validate their smug pronouncements, and alongside two-time champions Italy and a solid Belgium, Group 4 was the Group of Death in 1954. The Swiss impressed and the English did enough to advance.

Result: Both Switzerland and England could not make it past the quarter-final stage: the English were put down by an experienced Uruguay 4-2 and the Swiss were outgunned by neighbours Austria 7-5.

1958 - Sweden

Group 4

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Brazil 2 1 0 5 0 +5 5
Soviet Union 2 1 1 5 4 +1 5
England 0 3 1 4 5 -1 3
Austria 0 1 2 2 7 -5 1

The 1958 World Cup will forever be known as the stage Pele revealed his majesty to the world, but his aura wasn't manifest until the knockout round. Nevertheless, Brazil was the class of this tough group. The obstinate Soviets also made it out of this group at the expense of an England team still reeling from the Munich Air Disaster — the snowy plane crash that killed eight United players and robbed the country of wunderkinds like Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, and Duncan Edwards. Semifinalists in 1954, Austria disappointed.

Result: Tournament hosts Sweden pushed aside the Soviets in the quarter-finals 2-0, but Pele's magical feet took Brazil all the way to its first world title. From the quarter-final to the penultimate 5-2 win over Sweden in the final, Pele scored a total of six goals when it mattered most.

1962 - Chile

Group 2

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
West Germany 2 1 0 4 1 +3 5
Chile 2 0 1 5 3 +2 4
Italy 1 1 1 3 2 +1 3
Switzerland 0 0 3 2 8 -6 0

There were two potential Groups of Death in 1962: Group 2 and Group 4 (Hungary, England, Argentina, Bulgaria). But Group 2 was much tougher given Germany's methodical consistency, Chile's determination to impress as the host nation and Italy's desire to climb back to the apex. The Azzurri, however, could not break down the Germans (0-0) and were brushed aside by Chile (2-0). The Swiss were in the midst of a sharp decline from impressive performances from past tournaments.

Result: Yugoslavia outworked the tenacious Germans in the quarter-finals and won 1-0, while Chile captivated the entire country with a 2-1 win over the Soviets in the quarter-finals. La Roja were beaten in the semis 4-2 by all-conquering Brazil, but did bounce back to claim third spot with a 1-0 over the Yugoslavians

1966 - England

Group 4

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Soviet Union 3 0 0 6 1 +5 6
North Korea 1 1 1 2 4 -2 3
Italy 1 0 2 2 2 0 2
Chile 0 1 2 2 5 -3 1

When Pak Doo Ik fired a low shot beyond Italian goalkeeper Enrico Albertosi he turned Group 4 on its head, adding an exclamation point to perhaps the most memorable Group of Death in World Cup history. Everyone was aware of the Soviet Union's indomitable strength and stamina and the obstinate Italians were definitely favourites to progress, but no one had a clue about North Korea. The North Koreans were relentless, producing otherworldly energy that flustered the Soviets in a 2-0 loss, surprised Chile in a 1-1 draw and overcame the Italians in a 1-0 win.

Result: The Soviets beat Hungary 2-1 in the quarter-finals before falling to Germany 2-1 in the semifinal and then losing by the same score to Portugal in the third-place game. North Korea's quarter-final match against Portugal is one of the greatest knockout round matches in tournament history — the upstart isolationist nation took a unfathomable 3-0 after 25 minutes before Eusebio scored four times and Jose Augusto added a fifth.

1970 - Mexico

Group 3

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Brazil 3 0 0 8 3 +5 6
England 2 0 1 2 1 +1 4
Romania 1 0 2 4 5 -1 2
Czechoslovakia 0 0 3 2 7 -5 0

The original Grupo de la Muerte (depending on who you talk to) saw the greatest-ever Brazil squad pip the defending champions from England for first place, while 1962 finalists Czechoslovakia failed to pick up a point.

Result: England couldn't get past the opening knockout round, falling to West Germany 3-2 in extra time. But the Brazilians, fielding what many still consider to be the best soccer squad in history, romped to the title.

1974 - West Germany

Group 4

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Poland 3 0 0 12 3 +9 6
Argentina 1 1 1 7 5 +2 3
Italy 1 1 1 5 4 +1 3
Haiti 0 0 3 2 14 -12 0

Three of the four preliminary groups had legitimate claims to the Group of Death title in 1974, but Group 4 saw two World Cup favourites battle it out for the final spot as a surging Poland squad romped its way to first place. In the end, Argentina won out over Italy with a superior goal differential.

Result: Poland had its best-ever finish at a World Cup, nicking Brazil for third place, while Argentina meekly bowed out in the second group stage.

1978 - Argentina

Group 1

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Italy 3 0 0 6 2 +4 6
Argentina 2 0 1 4 3 +1 4
France 1 0 2 5 5 0 2
Hungary 0 0 3 3 8 -5 0

An imposing preliminary group, this one featured three teams that had legitimate title hopes but was surprisingly decided with a game to spare. Italy topped the host Argentines with a victory in the final game, while the Michel Platini-led French side ended up on the outside looking in.

Result: By far the most successful entries to come out of a Group of Death, Italy went on to finish fourth after falling to Brazil 2-1 in the third place game, while Argentina won it all in an extra time thriller over the Netherlands.

1982 - Spain

Group 6

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Brazil 3 0 0 10 2 +8 6
Soviet Union 1 1 1 6 4 +2 3
Scotland 1 1 1 8 8 0 3
New Zealand 0 0 3 2 12 -10 0

Most people point to Group C in the second round of this tournament as the ultimate Grupo de la Muerte, but Group 6 in the preliminary round shouldn't be overlooked, as it pitted perennial power Brazil against a powerful Soviet squad and Scotland's best-ever World Cup side.

Result: Brazil cruised through the group, scoring 10 goals along the way, while the Soviets squeaked through past the Scots on goal differential. Neither team advanced past the second group stage, while the Scottish press to this day say that its 1982 side should have won the World Cup.

1986 - Mexico

Group E

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Denmark 3 0 0 9 1 +8 6
West Germany 1 1 1 3 4 -1 3
Uruguay 0 2 1 2 7 -5 2
Scotland 0 1 2 1 3 -2 1

We've already touched on this one in the intro, and the Group of Death that started the trend brought another surprise winner. Denmark topped a group containing the World Cup favourites (West Germany) and the South American champions (Uruguay).

Result: The Danes' run ended abruptly after a 5-1 thrashing from Spain in the round of 16, while Uruguay fell at the same stage 1-0 to destined champions Argentina. But after a slow start the Germans nearly vindicated all the hype by beating Morocco (1-0), hosts Mexico (on penalties), and then France en route to the final, only to lose to Argentina 3-2.

1990 - Italy

Group F

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
England 1 2 0 2 1 +1 4
Ireland 0 3 0 2 2 0 3
Netherlands 0 3 0 2 2 0 3
Egypt 0 2 1 1 2 -1 2

It wasn't really thought of as a Group of Death when the tournament began, but looks can be deceiving, as Group F turned into one of the tightest groups in World Cup history. All six games save one (England-Egypt) were draws, and no team scored more than one goal in any match.

Result: Group winners England made it to the third-place game, losing 2-1 to Italy to finish fourth. Ireland fell to the Italians in the quarter-finals, while the Netherlands — a third place qualifier to the knockout round — was eliminated in the first knockout stage.

1994 - United States

Group E

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Mexico 1 1 1 3 3 0 4
Ireland 1 1 1 2 2 0 4
Italy 1 1 1 2 2 0 4
Norway 1 1 1 1 1 0 4

Out of 19 World Cups over 80 years of competition, Group E from 1994 still remains the only one where all four teams were tied on points after the matches concluded. Three of four sides still advanced to the second round.

Result: Both first-place Mexico and second-place Ireland fell in the round of 16, to Bulgaria and the Netherlands respectively. But Italy, sneaking into the knockout rounds with the last third-place qualifying spot, made it all the way to the final before losing to Brazil on penalties.

1998 - France

Group D

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Nigeria 2 0 1 5 5 0 6
Paraguay 1 2 0 3 1 +2 5
Spain 1 1 1 8 4 +4 4
Bulgaria 0 1 2 1 7 -6 1

The 1998 Group of Death turned into a coming-out party for Nigeria, who surprised everyone by winning the group. Amazingly, pre-tournament favourite Spain finished with the highest goal-differential in the group but still crashed out thanks to a slow start.

Result: Nigeria couldn't replicate its success in the opening knockout round, as the team was hammered by Denmark 4-1, while Paraguay took the eventual champions from France to extra time before losing 1-0 at the same stage of the tournament.

2002 - South Korea/Japan

Group F

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Sweden 1 2 0 4 3 +1 5
England 1 2 0 2 1 +1 5
Argentina 1 1 1 2 2 0 4
Nigeria 0 1 2 1 3 -2 1

Though favoured to win it all in 2002, Argentina failed to advance out of Group F as Sweden was the surprise winner, advancing to the round of 16 along with England.

Result: Sweden was summarily shocked in the round of 16 by the world-beaters from Senegal, while England fell to the eventual champions from Brazil in the quarter-final.

2006 - Germany

Group C

Team 

GF  GA  GD  PTS 
Argentina 2 1 0 8 1 +7 7
Netherlands 2 1 0 3 1 +2 7
Ivory Coast 1 0 2 5 6 -1 3
Serbia and Montenegro 0 0 3 2 10 -8 0

Group C was billed as the Group of Death heading into Germany 2006, but both Argentina and the Netherlands coasted to advancement, clinching knockout round spots with a game to spare.

Result: Argentina squeaked past Mexico in the first round before falling to host Germany in the quarter-finals, while the Netherlands fell to Portugal in the opening round during the infamous "Battle of Nuremberg," which saw four red cards and 16 yellows shown.