Aidan Smith: The World Cup group of death is no more

First-timers Panama are in what could be England's most straightforward qualifying group for years. Photograph: Arnulfo Franco/AP
First-timers Panama are in what could be England's most straightforward qualifying group for years. Photograph: Arnulfo Franco/AP
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Panama killed the love of history. My favourite subject at school – not that there was much competition, admittedly – had been going so well before that. Bloody battles were racked up amid a constant procession of fascinating tyrants and madmen. But the lesson on the Panama Canal took us gore-obsessed tykes into unfamiliar waters and frankly it was a bit boring.

But I think I could get interested in Panama again. Round about 1pm on 24 June next year, I reckon. Indeed I’ve been Googling the Central American republic and its ultra-strategic waterway already. 5,609 workers died during construction of the canal and I would have remembered that grim stat if I’d been told it at Broughton High.

By 24 June and Panama vs England in the World Cup this sort of info will be everywhere. “Twenty things you didn’t know about Panama” features in newspapers will fight for our attention as players-turned-pundits jostle with each other for the best canal backdrop to top and tail their TV travelogues about the tournament first-timers and their little hopes and dreams.

How many of these veterans of failed England campaigns of the past will be sporting Panama hats? All of them. How many will be smoking Panamas, which if you remember the 1970s ads, were “the only cigars with six appeal”? Maybe not many.

What an underwhelming World Cup draw that was. And what an uninspiring opening match it produced – Russia vs Saudi Arabia. So thank goodness for Panama and the team they’re playing, the most likely to get carried away by such a pairing and such a straightforward group.

England are the ex-winners, more than any other former champs, who will have the second phase plotted for them by fans-with-laptops before a ball has even been kicked. Do these people open their Christmas presents early, spoiling the fun and surprise of the big day? But England are also the ex-winners who in the build-up to a World Cup and during it will have more souvenir editions to their name, more flags, more bastardised chocolate bars, more signed-up memoirists among the players and more reality show opportunities for their WAGs – and yet by the end of the team’s involvement in the tournament will have so little to show for it all.

This is the first time the finals of the World Cup have been seeded to such an extent. Previously only the top eight countries were seeded but in Moscow on Friday all 32 nations were divided into pots according to their Fifa ranking. The result was the most anti-climactic shoogle of a bag of balls on an MDF plinth in a historical capital by a football legend there had ever been.

Death to the group of death! This is the sad consequence of the new system where more countries avoid more other countries and the possibility of some four-way cage-fight, or the kind of bouts for devil dogs which play in front of warehouses full of shaven-headed gambling addicts, where the winners are the only team left standing.

This was England’s fate four years ago in Brazil when they were dumped in the Amazon jungle with Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. That wasn’t the worst group of death there’s ever been but for Roy Hodgson’s team it was bad enough. This time, because of the additional seeding, it was widely predicted that Gareth Southgate, pictured, would avoid such a gruesome pile-up and so it proved. Belgium and Tunisia along with Panama constitute England’s most favourable draw for decades. For a country who in qualifying for major tournaments rarely encounter bumps in the road, and who five times in 20 years have been placed alongside hopeless teams amassing the grand total of zero points, that’s saying something.

If the group of death has croaked its last – and I can’t see how it hasn’t – then that’s sad. Maybe that’s easy to say from this standpoint. Scotland don’t qualify for World Cups any more and the Tartan Army would cheerfully march to their certain doom if they could just get back to the party. Perhaps non-participation has turned us into sadists: we can enjoy the mutually assured destruction of others from the comfort of our living-rooms. But a group of death can ignite a big, lumbering competition like the World Cup. Its explosions are vital.

Some have high hopes for the entanglement of Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. I would say this will be a near group of death experience. Close, but no Panama cigar. I’m also perturbed by Poland, Senegal, Colombia and Japan and hope this assembly doesn’t turn into a group of dead parrots sketch.

The draw has thrown up the Iberian stew of Spain vs Portugal but little else that’s tasty. Fifa’s variation on everyone-gets-a-prize – they all get seedings – could cause Russia 2018 to drag in the early days, much like the first months of the Champions League as the groups grind to their entirely predictable outcomes.

Fifa cannot argue with any conviction that, no matter, knockout will be exciting because in Brazil the best games were at the group stage. Knockout can bring chess moves, tension and fear. These groups have an antiseptic look to them, although I may still be getting used to the fact that Italy, Netherlands even the United States – regular qualifiers recently – are absent this time.

Just as well Panama will be there. They’ll bring newness and novelty, having been responsible for America’s demise, and will be the 34th different country England have faced in the finals. The two appear to have little in common although in qualification a header by Gabriel Torres in the victory over Costa Rica may not have actually crossed the line. Now you wouldn’t want the most important goal in your nation’s history to be the cause of dispute and jeering, would you?

Those commercials for Panama cigars were pretty funny. The best of them had a would-be romeo donning a chest wig to run along a beach and into the arms of the object of his affections but, disastrously, the rug transferred to her bosom. England will attempt to get the girl on 24 June.

Anything less and they should give up.