The 1970 World Cup was not seeded. Despite a series of signal fires lighting back into previous failures, FIFA reverted to a system in 1970 that had been roundly panned in World Cups past. So intensely, in fact, that it had abandoned it for nearly a decade.
In actual fact, the seeding process – or lack thereof – had been a point of contention reaching into the World Cup’s earliest years. In 1958, for instance, a roundly criticized geographic grouping process drew loud criticism from Austria, which was lumped into a Western European pre-group stage pot system with West Germany, Sweden and France. Ultimately, an otherwise solid Austria side was arrayed against the strongest opponents in each of the three other pots and finished last in its group.
In the face of opposition reaching far beyond Austria’s Alpine shadow, this approach had been scuttled for each of the following two World Cups. FIFA had been adamant in the run-up to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico that the grossly unfair geographic pot system was no more, to be replaced by the vastly more democratic seeding system that provided more balance in 1962 and 1966. FIFA was expected to use seeds again in 1970 because it had said as much.
FIFA did not use seeds in 1970. It reverted to the geographic pot system, lumping in two European pots with one for the Americas and another, loftily, for the ‘Rest of the World.’ The possibilities, to a modern soccer sensibility, were staggering to say the very least. Since there were no seeds within the pots, any team from any separate pot could be lumped into a single group together. The Mexican press, perhaps for the first time, was the first true journalistic collective to realize this all at once.
In contrast to the unmitigated glitz of the modern FIFA draw presentation, the 1970 event was utterly without pageantry. Monica Maria Canedo White, the daughter of the Mexican FA president, pulled the names of 16 nations out of four silver cups in the midst of an audience of about 1,000 officials. The mood was taut as a bowstring, and representatives of at least four nations left fuming.
The initial use of the term ‘Group of Death’ perhaps makes modern usage a bit inadequate when seen through the dusty, kaleidoscopic lens of history. In 1970, it had its introduction in the guise of Group 3: defending world champions England, Pele-led Brazil (which is very probably the best World Cup team of all time), 1962 runners-up Czechoslovakia and Romania, which finished above Greece, Switzerland and Portugal in its qualification group. Brazil won the group and the tournament. England did not make it past West Germany in the first knockout stage. And that was that for the Group of Death.
You are aware of the rest, an unbroken chain of cliches stretching across the dusty plains of posterity like a supply train struggling to keep up with its vanguard. We have abused the term until it has become unrecognizable.
And quite like junkies addicted to its flavor, we are using it again, on what amounts to a friendly Copa America tournament, to describe an American draw that features the third-best team in CONCACAF, a Paraguay team that lost to Argentina 6-1 in the last Copa America and a Colombia side that, while talented, has frankly underachieved since 2014.
This is where we are in 2016. Group of Death indeed.
For the second major tournament in a row, the American group is not even the most difficult in its own event. In 2014, the U.S. was roundly considered to be a part of the most difficult group in the Brazilian World Cup. It was, sadly, called The Group of Death almost immediately.
In actual fact, the tournament’s most difficult group was not G but D, where Costa Rica and Uruguay managed to advance from a four-team field that included Italy and England. Each of its matches were the equivalent of a quivering knife pressed dangerously against a neck vein, the entire thing threatening to pull away and reveal something horrifying at any moment.
This is not to suggest that the American group will be a casual stroll through the leafiest sections of Central Park. It is the sternest stuff. Paraguay is a wide menace, a threatening entity on the flanks that will test Jurgen Klinsmann’s fullback selection like few teams in this pool can. Colombia, despite its undeniable hot-and-cold form, will feature a freshly moneyed Jackson and a James Rodriguez desperately clawing for minutes under Real Madrid’s new boss, the hard-to-please Zinedine Zidane. And as for Costa Rica, well, it is worth mentioning that for the first time in 25 years – and maybe longer – the U.S. does not have the best goalkeeper in CONCACAF.
According to ESPN’s stats gurus, the U.S. has a 62 percent chance of advancing out of this group. I find that claim dubious, but it is not without its merits. The U.S. is hosting the event, and none of these teams are unbeatable in the purest sense of the word. By virtue of its hosting duties, the U.S. avoided Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, and there is no deep scare in any of these teams. If I’m doing the predicting, I will not pick the U.S. to advance until I see new things. There’s too much tactical white noise around this team for me to trust them in a group setup among good teams right now. In fact, I find it hard to imagine the U.S. has a better than 50/50 chance to advance, but that is better than some. And it certainly doesn’t denote a Group of Death, whatever the term is actually meant to convey.
The point here, though, is that statistical models don’t predict a relatively normative American side to advance at 62 percent if the group is truly Of the river Styx. There is no death in this group, only benign danger, and to expect dismemberment when there is only the vague promise of pain is masochism. The U.S. will not have it easy this summer, and if you predict them to sulk home in disappointment, you will have company.
But to say this is some sort of death-ward journey for any four of the teams involved in Group A’s shenanigans? Forget it. You’re inviting morbidity where there is only doubt.