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Welcome to the World Cup Group of Death

In this quadrennial tradition, never count out the minnow

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few years ago, the BBC released a television series to wildly unexpected acclaim. The Hunt, which gave viewers a new, beautiful, and often intense look at life in the world’s seas and oceans, featured many striking scenes: Perhaps the most notable, though, was what happened when a group of predators joined forces to hunt sardines. The sardines—millions of them—gather off the coast of the continent, their only protection being that they vastly outnumber those who pursue them. The footage that follows is

both spellbinding and a little heartbreaking, as the sheer ruthlessness of nature is laid bare. The predators, who seem to have a pact of nonaggression between them, eventually move in for the kill, and mount a coordinated assault. Tuna, sea lions, sharks, dolphins, shearwaters, and even a Bryde’s whale join the feast, in what must be one of the least-fair fights in the animal kingdom. Even the 10 plagues hit Egypt one by one: But for the sardines in that TV series, the plagues came all at once.

Every four years, the World Cup offers a situation in which the competitors are simultaneously shark and sardine: the Group of Death. This is when four strong teams are drawn together at the tournament’s first stage, but only two can prevail: The only question, then, is who will end up getting eaten. The most remarkable Group of Death in recent years occurred at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where three former World Cup winners—England, Uruguay, and Italy—found themselves in the same stretch of water as Costa Rica. To almost everyone’s surprise, Costa Rica topped the group and went on to be eliminated in the quarterfinals.

The Group of Death occupies an essential place within the World Cup’s legend: After all, every great quest must have an immediate sense of jeopardy, and we all know that some of the very best blockbuster movies are those which have the guts to kill a key character in the first few scenes. Of course, it is of little consolation to the victims that their demise makes for a good story. If any nation has the right to feel especially bitter in the past few years then it is probably Serbia, who in 2006 and 2010 found themselves in successive Groups of Death, having to battle their way past Argentina, Australia, the Netherlands, Ghana, Germany, and Ivory Coast. In Qatar, Serbia again find themselves part of a fatal foursome, since here they must face Brazil, Switzerland, and Cameroon. Yet sadly there is little sympathy for sardines.

The only solution to Serbia’s predicament is one long embraced by their neighbors, Croatia: If everyone is going to come for you, then you must ensure that you first come for everyone. As a less-fancied team at the World Cup, the one thing that counts in your favor is the bigger team’s sense of entitlement: their refusal to acknowledge that, even as you clamber over their barricades, disaster may be approaching. It was this strategy that helped Croatia surge to the semifinals in 1998, when they were eventually met and defeated by a France team that was wise enough to take them extremely seriously. It is a shame that teams should arrive at the World Cup and, in the Group of Death, face the very real prospect of going home at once: For one thing, it is hard enough to qualify in the first place. But if a team is serious about winning the whole thing, then it should perhaps be grateful to face a brutal test as early as possible. Spain learned this in 2010, losing their first game of the tournament to Switzerland before claiming the title weeks later with a 1-0 extra-time win over the Netherlands. That initial defeat primed them for the obdurate nature of the opponents to come, each of whom would sit their defenses deep and narrow, closing off all the angles and spaces in which Spain’s exceptional midfielders would typically thrive.

By contrast, Brazil had proceeded gracefully and largely incident-free to the quarterfinals, and—led by the superbly elusive Kaká—were looking like the tournament favorites. The only problem for Brazil was that they had not yet experienced an existential threat: And so the first time they did so, in the final 40 minutes of a game against the Netherlands that they should have been leading 3-0, it was too late. They were unprepared, in this tournament at least, for how to deal with going a goal behind. Meanwhile, Spain, at the same stage, ground past Paraguay by a single goal and with seven minutes to spare.

If your team has ended up in the Group of Death, you will understandably have mixed feelings. While your friends from other countries are gleefully looking forward to the next round, reasonably confident that they will qualify, you must contemplate the fact that you are in mortal danger. The only comfort you can take is that your friends will soon know what it is to feel like the sardine; whereas, should you make it through this initial test, then you will have developed a resistance to the adversity that they will later meet. So take heart, should this draw leave you feeling cursed; and good luck, particularly if you are Serbia.