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Friday, 15 June 2012

Dead and Buried


Every tournament has one, but just how deadly is ‘death’? The original ‘grupo de la muerte’ described Group Three at the 1970 World Cup and was coined by remarkably morbid/sensationalist Mexican journalists. That group contained the fatal mix of reigning champions England, ‘Best team everTM’ Brazil, the runners up in ’62 Czechoslovakia and Romania. Trumping that was probably Spain ‘82’s offering of Brazil, Italy and Argentina. Three apples of death and not an onion in sight. However, this is meant to be a piece about the Euros, apparently, and so to the Euros we must go.

‘Lies, damn lies and the FIFA world rankings’, Mark Twain famously said, but in terms of groups of death, some statistical input can at least lead us to one conclusion as regards the deadliest group of all time. The particularly chilling group of Germany (ranked second in the world at the time), Russia (3), Italy (7) and the Czech Republic (10) comes out at an average world ranking of 5.5, or, in today’s money, four Brazils. FOUR BRAZILS.

There was stiff competition, even in 1996, from what we can presumably call the ‘group of impending doom’, comprising France, Spain, the Bulgaria of Stoichkov et al and Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania (France and Spain qualified). However, the tournament winner – Germany, lest we forget – emerged from the ultimate deathly hallows.

But are sides actually strengthened by coffin-dodging among their illustrious peers and going on to top the group – and do they become invincible in the process? At Euro 2000, the case for this was strengthened further by France, who emerged from a group pitting them against the Dutch, the Czechs and eventual whipping boys Denmark to win the tournament thanks to a David Trezeguet golden goal.

From there on in though, group of death winners in 2004 and 2008 failed to make their groundwork count, with Czech Republic winning a group also comprising the Netherlands, Germany and Latvia, but then losing in the semi-finals, while last time around, it was the Netherlands turn to top a group of death ahead of Italy, Romania and France before being dumped out by Russia in the quarters.

This summer, Group B has a case for being the deadliest of them all with Germany (3), Holland (4), Portugal (10) and Denmark (9) averaging a remarkable 6.5 in the Fifa world rankings and all placed within the top 10. But will this actually help the group winner (more than likely Germany)?

Like many tournament winners the Germans have ridden their luck to an extent already – while superior against Portugal, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Manuel Neuer’s timbers were shivered by Pepe just before half time, while the Mario Gomez winner didn’t arrive until the final 15 minutes. Things seemed altogether more straightforward against the Dutch, although the Germans had to withstand a period of sustained pressure.

That said, of course, it’s not as if anyone ever won a tournament – or indeed a football match – without surviving some decent chances for the opposition. Generally, their progress has been serene and anything other than a full haul of points from this deadliest group of death would now be something of a surprise. This is a Germany side almost pre-programmed to get to the latter stages of the tournament this year and the fact that they have a chance to top the most hotly anticipated group of the competition – with a 100% record – is a significant statement of intent. For where other teams (England) plot their way out of groups, Germany (particularly this squad) plot their way to finals, difficult group or otherwise. It is a luxurious position to be in.

The real shame is that the death knell has already been sounded for groups of death. With UEFA’s expansion of the tournament to 24 teams for the next incarnation in France in 2016, the seeded and higher ranked nations will be better protected than ever and the smitings they regularly deliver in their qualification groups will be extended for another round of matches in the tournament proper.

One final thought – what does a group of death actually mean? It seems the standard definition is of a group in which teams of a similar standard are pitted against each other, with one team that would be expected to progress in any other group ultimately packing up their kit bags and getting on the plane home. Sure, every game becomes massively hyped. The team boarding said plane home will likely be doing so with mystifyingly poor performances for which they have been punished by other top sides, or by slender goal differences or single chances wasted.

At least they have an excuse, of sorts. Surely a more painful defeat, a more grisly death, is being an average side, pitted against peers of similar average-ness, and STILL failing to qualify. Of Greece, the Czechs, Poland and Russia, did any manage to avoid dreaming of qualification when the groups were decided? What excuse then for a disappointing campaign. Are stakes higher if there are none of Europe’s traditional top table to steal all the points?

This will perhaps be the way of most painful defeat in the future, not by groups of death per se, but by groups of unfathomable torture. Because after all, it’s the hope that kills you.

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