The unfortunate teams who are stuck in the infamous and inevitable Group of Death when the 2014 FIFA World Cup draw is held Friday may have just one sliver of consolation to make them feel better.
They won't be alone.
A combination of FIFA's draw format, combined with the reality that no major soccer power stumbled in qualifying, means that this time around there could easily be more than one group that is worthy of the gruesome and now iconic title that guarantees its share of heartbreak.
That's why Brazil 2014 can make a legitimate claim to being the strongest World Cup field in history. The interminable qualification process, which begins three years ahead of the actual tournament and stretches over more than 800 games and six continents, typically features a sprinkling of shocks, but there were only minor surprises with the absence of European nations Ukraine, Sweden, Denmark and Serbia. None of them will be particularly missed outside their homeland, but the World Cup would have welcomed the thrilling individuals talents of Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahomovic.
Furthermore, FIFA's continental regions have only gotten stronger in the three and a half years since Spain lifted the trophy after a month-long struggle at South Africa 2010. Africa might be the finest example with teams like Ghana and Ivory Coast having continued to develop into well-drilled, polished outfits with a talented core of players who perform in some of the biggest leagues in the world.
From Asia, Japan has emerged as not just a power within its own region but also a strong and physical squad capable of making serious inroads. The Japanese lost in the last 16 in 2010, but a return to that stage or even further would not be a shock for them next summer.
"This will be the best World Cup ever," declared former Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, who was the tournament's top scorer in 2002 in leading the Selecao to their fifth world championship.
[World Cup draw: Follow it live on Friday, Dec. 6]
"Brazil will host a special tournament but you also have to look at the teams and how strong they are. European teams have done well recently at the World Cup, but you will have South American countries who will be difficult to beat on their own continent. The other confederations are improving now, too. We have never seen depth like this."
Only one of the 32 participants has never before played in a World Cup. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which came close to qualifying four years ago in a European playoff loss to Portugal, will be a solid addition. The team's coach, Safet Susic, is under no illusions as to the difficulty of the task ahead, calling this tournament field "painfully, wonderfully strong."
The very nature of the draw ensures there will be nervous energy coursing through the room at the Costa do Sauipe resort in Bahia.
FIFA's system demands that each group contains one seeded team, seven of them taken from the top of the world rankings and one being allocated to the host nation. The remaining teams are then arranged into three separate pots according to region. Each group will contain one team from every pot, with no group allowed to have more than one team from the same continent, with the exception of Europe.
The United States and its three CONCACAF region colleagues have been lumped into Pot 3 with the four Asian qualifiers.
There are a huge number of permutations and plenty of possibilities for chaos.Netherlands, runner-up four years ago and with a near-spotless record in qualifying, narrowly missed out on a seeding and is the most dangerous floater in the draw – one that no seed wants to meet. Other possibilities mean that Brazil, France and Italy could all be pooled together, in a group that would contain countries that have a combined 10 of the 19 World Cups ever staged.
If that arises, whichever hapless fourth team is stuck with them can probably make other plans once June turns into July as a victim of what would be one of the deadliest Groups of Death ever.
- Sports & Recreation