Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Mon 16 June 2008

The Group of Death - A History

It's Day 11 of Euro 2008 and time once again to witness the goings-on in 'The Group of Death', i.e. Group C, featuring France, Italy, Romania and the Netherlands.

We've used the term 'Group of Death' quite a lot here at SPAOTP recently, but to be fair we're not the only ones bandying that particular title around. It’s a label that everyone seems happy to give to this fearsome foursome, and rightly so. Out of all the four teams in Euro 2008 Group C, the lowest any of them appear on the FIFA World Rankings list is 12th (Romania). Perhaps as far as toughness goes, this may be the ultimate 'Group of Death' ever seen in a major competition, but we wondered if any others could lay claim to that title from football's rich and illustrious history. As you'd expect, we didn't rest until we'd found out…

The Euros
Europe's own continental championship didn't embrace the 'round robin' system until 1980 when UEFA decided that the Finals should expand from [gasp] four teams to eight. When it did, we got our first taste of what a 'Group of Death' might look like when Group 2 featured some of Europe's finest teams.

Euro groups begin
There was an England team appearing in their first major tournament for ten years featuring an emerging band of talented players under the guidance of Ron Greenwood. There was host nation Italy, homing in on a world title which would arrive two years later. Spain were still producing some of the best players in the world at the time and were by no means an easy team to beat, and indeed the same could be said for Belgium who had arguably their strongest side ever at the time and would go on to reach the Euro '80 Final, only to be beaten by West Germany.

Belgium would be the winners from this 'Group of Death' with Italy edged out only on goals scored, yet as the years went by the European Championship would see tougher, tighter groups that would prove to be even more difficult for its competitors.

The home team sneaks through
By the time Euro '88 was done and dusted, hindsight might have told you that Group 2 was the one to avoid in the First Round as it contained both of the finalists - the Netherlands and the Soviet Union - not to mention England and Ireland.

In actual fact, it was Group 1 that earned the 'Group of Death' title as its line-up was undoubtedly even stronger. Once again it featured the hosts - West Germany, a team that only two years earlier had played Argentina in the World Cup Final. Spain had also shown promise during Mexico '86 and had gained some kudos by thrashing an exciting Denmark side 5-1 in the Second Round. That same Denmark side were back again to seek revenge on the Spanish, but they, together with the Germans, would share their group with Italy, host nation of the next World Cup and always a threat.

On this occasion, the Danes had nothing to offer, finishing bottom of the group with three straight defeats. Euro '88 would mark the end of the first great era of Danish football, but it would also see the end of any hopes that Spain might have of continuing their fine from which began in Euro '84. The Spaniards' only points came from their 3-2 win over Denmark, so that left West Germany and Italy to fight over top spot and it was the former that snatched it by a single goal. Sadly for both teams, this Group of Death would have a lingering effect as West Germany lost their semi-final to eventual champions, the Netherlands, while Italy were defeated by the Soviet Union in theirs.

Between then and now, many Euro groups have been tough but none have been able to shine a light on this year's First Round Group C. Look to the World Cup, however, and there's a rich seam of darkness running through many a First and Second Round group.

The World Cup
The thing with the World Cup is that on some occasions there'd be groups in the First Round and the Second - even a group to decide the winners, once - more of which later...

Total Domination
But some of those Second Round set-ups would take the 'Group of Death' premise to a totally new level. In 1974, we saw the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina and East Germany all thrown into the same pot. East Germany proved they weren't to be taken lightly after beating their West German neighbours and hosts to top Group 1 in the First Round, and the South Americans would be tough to overcome too.

But this was the start of the Total Football era and the Dutch side beat them all to take their place in the Final that year. The East Germans and the Argentineans would only pick up a single point in Group A while Brazil would grab the other Semi Final spot with four points from a possible six.

As close as it gets
A tough group, there, for two of the four sides but in the First Round of the 1990 World Cup, one group would prove that all four sides were almost exactly matched. Group F contained England, the inaugural appearances at the finals of the Republic of Ireland, a rare excursion for Egypt and the European Champions, the Netherlands. The English press proclaimed it was 'The Group of Death', although to be fair they tend to say that for any group England appears in, but on the face of it this didn't seem the most difficult group to be in.

First appearances turned out to be deceptive. In the first round of games, England drew 1-1 with Ireland and the Netherlands drew 1-1 with Egypt. The next round proved just as tight - England and the Netherlands sharing a 0-0 draw and the Irish and Egyptians doing exactly the same. Going into the final round of games, FIFA were thumbing through their rule books to see what would happen if all four teams ended the group exactly level. Though there was some parting of the ways, that rule book would be required as England defeated Egypt 1-0 and Ireland and the Netherlands drew 1-1.

The group ended with England on top on four points, the Dutch and the Irish had three points and exactly the same number of points, goal difference and goals scored, and the Egyptians were last on two points. In order to separate the Netherlands and Ireland, lots had to be drawn and the Irish came out as winners to take second place in the group. In the modern era, teams have never finished as close as this before or since.

1982 - The Year of the Mini Group of Death
In 1982, the number of finalists playing at the FIFA World Cup was increased from 16 to 24 which meant the First Round would now employ six groups of four, of which the top two teams would progress to the Second Round. In order to get the remaining 12 teams down to four for the semi finals, a second round-robin stage was introduced featuring four smaller groups of three. It was a system criticised for lacking the usual levels of excitement seen in a knockout stage and has never been repeated to this day, but it did at least throw up a couple of mini 'Groups of Death' worth talking about.

Once again, the English press pronounced Ron Greenwood's side had been dealt the worst hand of all, being thrown into Group 2 along with West Germany and hosts Spain. It certainly was a tough group to be in, but no-one really believed it was all that bad when they'd seen who was in Group 3.

Though small, it was beautifully formed as it featured favourites Brazil, holders Argentina and Italy. Each of the games featured lots of goals, plenty of excitement and everything you could possibly want from a World Cup group. It began with Italy beating Argentina 2-1 in Barcelona, then Brazil beat the Argentineans 3-1 three days later.

The holders were out, so the group ended with a 'winner takes all' showdown between Brazil and Italy. Having beaten Argentina by more goals than Italy, Brazil knew they only had to get a draw with the Italians to go through to the semis.

The match began with Paolo Rossi scoring first for Italy in the fifth minute, but Socrates equalised seven minutes later. Rossi scored again after 25 minutes to put his team in front and the 2-1 lead remained intact until the 68th minute when Falcao equalised again for Brazil. Many thought Brazil were back in with a chance of winning the game, but just six minutes later Rossi popped up to score his third goal of the match which proved to be the winner for Italy.

Brazil were defeated and out of the competition, but Italy had survived the 'Group of Death.' It was proof they could beat anybody on their day, and it would stand them in good stead as they journeyed on to win the World Cup less than a week later.

The Final Group of Death
There have been so many great groups down the years in previous World Cups, but the 1950 edition had two which show how meaningful a real Group of Death could be.

To start with, there were four First Round groups of which two had four teams, one had three and the other had just two teams because of the various countries that had decided to pull out of the competition beforehand.

That meant the group featuring two teams, Uruguay and Bolivia, would revolve around a single match between them. The winner would go through to the final round, the loser would go home. As Groups of Death go, it doesn't get any tougher than that, and for Bolivia it was especially tough as they lost 8-0 to their South American counterparts.

Uruguay therefore took their place in the Final Round - not a Final match, you'll notice, but a round-robin group of the four First Round group winners who would thrash it out to see who'd win the Jules Rimet Trophy. Again, it was a system that's never been repeated since, but it did give everyone the opportunity to see what the ultimate 'Group of Death' being played out. Its winner would be the world champions, and no group has ever offered such a prize before or after.

A Final after all
The four winners of the First Round groups were Brazil, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay and their matches in the Final Group would take place in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The hosts, Brazil began in emphatic fashion by beating the Swedes 7-1 in Rio while Spain and Uruguay fought out a 2-2 draw in Sao Paulo. Brazil then followed their first victory with one that was almost as emphatic - a 6-1 win over Spain while Uruguay picked up their first win by beating Sweden 3-2.

It all therefore came down to the last match between Brazil and their bitter rivals Uruguay. Brazil already had four points in the bag compared to Uruguay's three and their goal difference was far better too. All Brazil had to do was get a draw and the world championship would be theirs - and in front of thousands and thousands of their own fans in the Maracana stadium.

The two teams were evenly matched during the first half of the Final, but the home side took the lead two minutes into the second half. Brazil were in front and their fans were delighted, but their team seemed overawed by the occasion and were struggling to play their usual free-flowing, skilful brand of football. Juan Schiaffino equalised for Uruguay nearly twenty minutes later and just when the Brazilian fans were coming to terms with the shock of it all, Alcides Ghiggia made it 2-1 to Uruguay with eleven minutes left to win the match.

Most of the 174,000 crowd in the Maracana Stadium couldn't believe what they'd just seen. They felt sure it would be their own team that would win the 1950 World Cup, an opinion shared by the Brazilian officials who forgot to present the trophy to the winning Uruguayans. Thank heavens for Jules Rimet himself - at least he had the presence of mind to go down to the pitch to do the honours himself.

And that was that - surely the ultimate 'Group of Death' and one that resulted in Uruguay winning their second World Cup. So take note, English journalists - the next time your country is drawn to play a few half-decent sides from places hardly anyone's ever heard of, remember - it'll take some beating to surpass any of the above. They were the deadliest of all the 'Groups of Death'.

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