Port Elizabeth: No World Cup worthy of the title can be staged without the dreaded Group of Death casting its long shadow over the tournament.
When the draw was made back in December for the 2010 World Cup the label was immediately attached to Group G containing five-time champions Brazil, 2006 semi-finalists Portugal, Didier Drogba’s multi-talented Ivory Coast, and unknown packages North Korea.
The term may have taken on the mantle of hackneyed cliché but like all cliches it has its basis in truth - no more so than in South Africa.
The first shots in this year’s Group of Death are due to be fired in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday with Portugal, the third-ranked team in the world, tackling African superpower Ivory Coast.
Portugal’s manager Carlos Queiroz, speaking at the eve of match press conference at the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium yesterday, alluded to the phenomenon.
“The press have dubbed this the ‘Group of Death’. With all due respect to North Korea three teams are chasing two places. It doesn’t matter if one of the trio plays the best soccer in the world, only two can go through.”
The moniker first surfaced at the 1970 World Cup by Mexican journalists who described Group Three featuring reigning champions England, favourites and that year’s champions Brazil, 1962 runners-up the then Czechoslovakia, and Romania, as the ‘grupo de la muerte’.
It appeared again at the 1982 World Cup in Spain for the second round Group C pitting titleholders Argentina against eventual champions Italy and Brazil - with only one of this trio qualifying for the semi-finals.
In 1986 the Group Of Death was used for Group E - Uruguay, West Germany, Denmark and Scotland.
The Uruguayans were criticised for foul play in their decisive game when they knocked out Scotland. Uruguay manager Omar Borras was suspended when he observed after the match: “The Group of Death? Yes, there was a murderer on the field today. The referee.”
Other managers have made dramatic modifications to the expression.
At the 1998 World Cup in France Javier Clemente, manager of Spain who had been drawn with Nigeria, Paraguay and Bulgaria, suggested: “This is not the Group of Death as some people have said, it is the Group of heart-attacks.”
His concern was well founded - Spain failed to survive.
Fast forward 12 years to South Africa and Portugal, Brazil, and Ivory Coast can identify with Clemente’s feelings.