When the World Cup draw materialized, lo, about 94 years ago, one group leapt out at me. And when I say “leapt out at me,” I mean in the fashion of a feral cat that hasn’t eaten in awhile. It wasn’t the USA’s surprisingly tricky quartet, dubbed the EASY Group by some arrogant gits in the British press who will hopefully have four years to rue their words after this coming week. Nor was it the ballyhooed Group of Death—I’m sorry, I mean THE GROUP OF DEATH!!! After the initial fixtures, it’s looking more like the Group of Two Overhyped and Negative Teams Plus the Juche Idea and Brazil, When They Feel Like It.
No, the foursome that instantly put the bloodshivers on me was the Germany/Serbia/Australia/Ghana configuration. Not because I thought it would produce the sort of flowing, gripping football that we nerds so love to glorify, but rather the opposite. Just reading those four team names in succession just about gives a man a bleeding ulcer. I immediately dubbed this the Group of Stress.
Leave aside the fact that no one sees Germany on their schedule and thinks, Oh, goody. Even though Joachim Loew’s side plays a vastly prettier game than stereotype demands, Ze Germans are still Ze Germans, and many a flattening will be had at their whim. Still, there’s a reason that Loew looks like a hunted man in the photo above.
It’s these other three teams. Not one of them is the side one thinks of when one thinks “World Cup football.” (In fairness, there’s a good chance that at that moment, one is thinking of beer rather than an actual XI.) Nor are they the kind of plucky, lovable underdogs who give the tournament a bit of charm. They are, individually and collectively, a bunch of gnarly fuckers, the sort of sides that damage opposing managers’ mental health. Put them together and you have: yes, THE GROUP OF STRESS.
In Serbia, you’ve got the whole Tito’s Zombie Army thing to worry about—the fact that Yugoslavia, despite ceasing to exist, remains a secret force in world football. The former Balkan socialist utopia may be a rotting Wikipedia entry these days, but the legacy of its potent national squad lives on. Two ex-Yugoslav republics have tough teams in this tournament, and two others came close to making the field. We’ve already learned a few things about the Slovenes, and I will color myself unsurprised if sorry England and their WAGs depart in favor of elk-like Slovenia and (uh, maybe?) their SWAGs. The Serbs showed their mettle in beating Germany, and now just have to be suitably cunning against Australia to live up to their dark-horse billing. Will I be excited if the Chain of Events somehow leaves the US playing Serbia in the next round? No.
As for Ghana—well, I know it’s not the done thing to discuss African sides as if they were actual football teams rather than the living embodiment of the People’s Joy in the Continent’s Game. But Ghana established itself in my mind as a bunch of diving, cheating, time-wasting and, above all, canny bastards when they slipped a shiv into naive little USA last time ’round. I will revise that assessment when proven otherwise. The thing is, Ghana is the one African team so far that has actually won a match. In fact, the Black Stars are the one sub-Saharan African side so far to exhibit understanding that a football match is a contest that can be won or lost, rather than an extended audition for a U2 video.
Finally, Australia. Well, with two sendings-off, they’ve pretty much fucked up their bid for the Fair Play Award. To be honest, they were not exactly favored in that category coming in. The Ozlandians have not looked very good so far, absorbing the thrashing of the tournament at Germany’s hands and clinging to a point after drawing Ghana. But—and I am not attempting to engage in national stereotypes; let’s kick racism out of football, et cetera, et cetera—I have this weird feeling that Ghana and Serbia may have cause to regret letting Australia see where the good silver and antiquarian books are kept. Hear me out: heavy-tackling Australia cons some Serbian hothead into an early red and wins its final match 2 : 0. Simultaneously, an enraged Germany beats the hell out of Ghana, say 3 : 0. Who gets the second bid? With hypothetical goal difference locked at -2, we look to total hypothetical goals. With three against Ghana’s two, advance, Australia fair.
Will that happen? Um, no—probably not. But then again, this…is…the…Group…of…well, you know.