Oh, gosh, there are so many wonderful things about international football tournaments. Groups of Death is just one of them. Here is a short explanation:

Many tournament formats include a group phase, to ensure that all of the entrants play a certain minimum number of games, kind of to justify them turning up (important when you’re Ghana and you’re playing at a World Cup in Japan). So typically four teams will be drawn together, they all play each other and the two teams with the best results qualify for the next stage of the tournament.

Does it sometimes seem like I’m overexplaining things to a patronising degree on this blog? That right there might have been a step too far. Oh well.

So Groups of Death come about when, essentially, the tournament’s seeding system and draw conspire to put four strong teams together in the same group. The expression was coined in 1986 when Uruguay were drawn in a World Cup group with Denmark, West Germany, and Scotland (funny how that wouldn’t really look like a group of death today; swings and roundabouts hm?), and their coach called it “El grupo de la muerte.” You can read about what happened (and about five other groups of death) here.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Groups of Death is the anticipation. The whole point of international football tournaments is to get all the good teams together in one place at the same time; groups of death ensure you get a lot of that concentrated goodness right from the start of the tournament. The fact that the groups are drawn a long time before the tournament actually happens gives plenty of time for very specific imagining of what will happen when, say England go up against Argentina (World Cup 2002). Which leads me to the reason this is being written right now: the draw for Euro 2o12 happened last Friday, and we got a humdinger of a GoD:

Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal.

I mean, holy cow. Netherlands-Germany is one of the biggest rivalries in football (it seems hilarious to outsiders that anyone could possibly hate the Dutch, but the Germans manage it), while Portugal have the frustratingly brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo (frustrating because his astonishing gift for the game is attached to such a preening, petulant excuse for a sports star) as well as… a bunch of other decent players, probably. They did thump Spain in a friendly recently. Which makes for three cracking matches to take place in the first couple of weeks of the tournament, as well as England-France (remember 2004? Grrr!), Poland-Russia (political), and Spain-Italy. But then again, another great thing about football tournaments is that any old game could turn out to be a classic; in fact, I’m really quite looking forward to Ireland-Croatia. Beautiful.

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