SPORT

The Real Group of Death

SPORT
Jun 11, 2014 at 3:50 PM ET

Fans salivate over the Group of Death that every World Cup inevitably thrusts upon unlucky heavy hitters cage-matched in the same group. This year, however, regional factions are debating which group qualifies as the real Group of Death for Brazil 2014.

American media says Group G—Germany (FIFA rank: 2), Portugal (4), the U.S. (13) and Ghana (38)—holds the title, hands down. In England, tabloid headlines sound a different alarm: English Premier League high-scorer (and convicted biter) Luis Suárez leads Uruguay (7) with canines bared against Italy (9), England (10) and Costa Rica (28) in Group D. But the real Group of Death, in our humble opinion, features a rematch of the 2010 final and allows no margin for error.

The insidious nature of Group B means that coming second equates to a stay of execution. In fact, think of Group B as having only one actual qualifying spot. Spain (1), Chile (14), the Netherlands (15) and Australia (62) will all have to bare-knuckle for first, because the group runner-up plays the winner of Group A, and as sure as Pelé talks about himself in the third person, Brazil will top its group.

You could argue that Brazil winning isn’t a sure thing, but consider this: Host countries almost always perform over the odds, and Brazil is already a super heavyweight. The team has the goal-scoring exploits of Golden Boot contender Neymar (Barcelona), Hulk (Zenit St. Petersburg) and even defenders like Dani Alves (Barcelona).

Host nations have won five of the 19 World Cups. In recent years, France won France 1998, South Korea got to the semis of South Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany reached the semis at Germany 2006. Anything less than a Brazil World Cup victory will amount to a national tragedy—not unlike the 1950 final in which Brazil lost to Uruguay in the dying minutes on home soil, one of the darkest days in the nation’s collective memory, even 64 years later. Desperate to rectify that loss, the Seleção need no motivation.

What our position comes down to, essentially, is that the other groups saddled with the Group of Death label will still send on two teams to live another day. So while Group D has three top-10 teams, Italy will take the top spot, leaving Uruguay and England with an eminently dispatchable Costa Rica and a fair fight between themselves. Uruguay barely qualified for the World Cup; England bottles it at big tournaments. May the best team win.

All four teams in Group G would normally emerge from their group, but Germany could potentially win the tournament, and a Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo fundamentally has the firepower to progress even if the defense leaks goals. Still, both the U.S. and Ghana have the quality to beat Portugal, so ultimately after a fair fight, the best two progress from a tough group.

In Group B, however, either Spain, Chile and the Netherlands will miss out, and then one lucky non-loser must play Brazil. So after Brazil likely slaughters Croatia June 12 amidst the opening day pandemonium, Spain and Holland face off in Group B—two returning finalists drawn in the group stage for the first time. And those two progress, yes? Not so fast.

Spain’s credentials are impeccable. Back-to-back European Championships (2008, 2012) sandwich its 2010 World Cup win. Barcelona and Real Madrid players Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas have dominated world football for eight years by exhausting their opponents with a possession game and hunting in packs to win back the ball when they lose it. Opponents may keel over in the heat, running overtime to chase down the ball pinging in ever-pivoting, rotating triangles.

The Netherlands combines veterans Robin van Persie (Manchester United) and Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich) with a slew of young, quick players. Van Persie consolidated his status as Holland’s all-time high scorer with 42 goals as the team won nine and drew one in qualifying. Robben’s 21-goal season with Bayern Munich clinched the league in record time.

Many see Chile as a dark horse to win the Cup. Striker Alexis Sánchez scored 19 goals for Barcelona, and midfield general Arturo Vidal helped marshal Juventus to their third straight Serie A title. Sánchez scored four goals and Vidal added three during the World Cup qualifying campaign. Perhaps crucially, the lesser-known Eduardo Vargas (Valencia) scored both goals in fall 2013 in a 2-2 draw with Spain and Chile’s lone goal in its 2-1 loss to Brazil. And Chile, third in qualifying in South America, would like to remind the world that no non-South American country has ever won the World Cup when it was held in South America, so extra points for home court advantage.

Australia could prove spoiler to the group, as everyone will need full points against the Socceroos, who don’t hop to defeat quite as readily as their absurd name suggests.

But our best guess? Spain will likely win the group, and with that, a bonus: Not only does Spain not face Brazil in the next round, but it also can’t face the host team until the final. Chile, on the other hand, will edge past the Netherlands to take second—and the date with Brazil. Un-fun fact for Chile: Brazil has knocked it out of the last two World Cups.