World Cup 2014 Rankings: Top 20 International Teams Headed to Brazil
The World Cup is still more than two years away, but it's never too early to start thinking about the world's greatest sporting spectacle.
That's what we're doing today: daydreaming. The subject is rankings and the number is 20.
So it's easy then. This is a ranking of the top 20 teams that will play in World Cup 2014 two-plus years from now in Brazil.
To compile this list, we used three other rankings and seasoned them with the good old-fashioned smell test. If a team seemed too high or too low, we moved them. Just like that.
The rankings we used were the December edition of the (somewhat notorious) FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings, the ELO Ratings and the Soccer Power Index. You'll see them as FIFA, ELO and SPI, respectively, on each slide.
What About the USMNT?
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Well, in short, the Americans are not ranked highly right now, for good reason. In various rankings, they rate below Australia, Egypt (hello up there, Bob Bradley), Ukraine, Venezuela, Iran, Algeria and fellow up-and-comers Japan. Yikes.
Most of that has to do with 2011, a below-average year in which the Yanks went 6-8-3. The US did reach the Gold Cup final but lost to a clearly superior Mexico 4-2 after taking an early 2-0 lead. Later in the year, the US endured a stretch of four 1-0 losses out of five games under new manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
Speaking of Klinsmann, the World Cup winner is perhaps the biggest reason for optimism in the US camp. Others include budding stars like Brek Shea and Jose Torres, the first-place finish over England in the 2010 World Cup group and the fact that the US has reached the knockout stages of two of the past three World Cups (that record is 3-for-6 since the US ended its 40-year Cup hiatus in 1990).
On the flip side, Tim Howard and Landon Donovan, who turns 30 in March, aren't getting any younger. Clint Dempsey, meanwhile, hasn't yet developed into the team's leader. So there's also reason for gloom, even with Berserk Bob finally out of the picture.
Give it a year, though, and the Yanks might be much higher in the rankings.
Australia? The 20th-best team in the world? Probably not, but they will—repeat, will—qualify for the World Cup, and they've seen a fair amount of success recently, including a second-place finish at last year's Asian Cup.
The squad is talented, if aging. Guys like Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Brett Emerton and captain Lucas Neill all experienced success that was, until their time, unprecedented for Australians. But they're all on the wrong side of 30.
Australia will have to reload if it wants to make progress in 2014. But with young talent like Tommy Oar waiting in the wings, that doesn't seem out of the question.
Seriously, though, every South American team will have at least a moderate advantage in 2014 with the Cup being played in Brazil.
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Russia continues to be international football's sleeping giant. As the USSR they won the inaugural European Championship in 1960 and finished second in 1964 and 1972. A European power into the '70s, the USSR fell on hard times after that, and Russia hasn't figured out a way back to glory.
Now, though, as the domestic league continues to improve (thanks to the infusion of more and more mystery money), Russia could be a team to watch over the next decade. And it doesn't hurt that they have the "Russian Messi."
And remember, Denmark beat out Portugal in qualifying.
Like Australia, Japan will qualify easily in Asia, and these days they expect to make the knockout stages regularly. But when will they take the next step?
The presence of current stars like full-back Yuto Nagatomo, midfielder Keisuke Honda and forward Shinji Kagawa suggests another breakthrough will come soon—as does that win over Australia in the Asian Cup final.
If Denmark is Mitt Romney, Croatia is Jon Huntsman. They're the team everybody likes but no one is really impressed with.
Admittedly, Croatia's frontline is formidable with Eduardo (of leg-breaking fame—sorry in advance), Ivica Olic and Nikica Jelavic as strikers and Luka Modric as a playmaker.
But really. Come on, FIFA. Is Croatia actually the eighth-best team in the world? That's exhibit A for why no one takes your rankings too seriously.
No one remembers this now, but Chile entered their final match of the 2010 World Cup group stages with a chance to finish ahead of Spain. A 2-1 loss doomed them to second place and a pretty much un-winnable match against Brazil in the knockout phase.
Nonetheless, Chile is still a team on the rise. They'll continue to rise and will probably be a trendy pick in 2014—especially if Barcelona midfielder Alexis Sanchez (pictured) keeps building his celebrity.
After the unexpected run to the World Cup final in 2006, France hit the bottom in 2010 when the players revolted and the team played like poo. Now Laurent Blanc is in charge and France suddenly looks promising again.
The squad is bursting with talent up and down the pitch. Eric Abidal is the ranking member of a defense that also features Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy and Patrice Evra. The midfield is spoiled for options with Yoann Gourcuff, Yann M'Vila, Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and others. Up front, Karim Benzema is solid, while Loïc Remy is deadly yet somewhat under the radar.
Don't be surprised if France makes a run at Euro 2012.
11. Ivory Coast
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Ivory Coast features a cosmopolitan squad of stars based around the globe. You're probably familiar with most of them, from defenders Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue, to midfielders Cheick Tiote, Gervinho and Yaya Toure, to forwards Didier Drogba, Seydou Doubmia and Salomon Kalou.
That roster reads like an All-Star team. No surprise, then, that Ivory Coast is ranked so highly.
Shame on SPI. Italy is not worthy of that ranking. The 2010 World Cup was a disappointment, but the Azzurri won it all in 2006.
The squad is as talented as always. Keeper Gianluigi Buffon serves as the anchor and superstars dot the lineup everywhere else.
Italy is always a threat to go all the way. The 2014 World Cup will be no different.
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Argentina should have several factors working to its advantage in 2014.
Plus, they should feel comfortable playing so close to home.
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Mexico, which is criminally underrated by FIFA based on confederation alignment alone, played impressive football in a 4-2 win over the United States in the 2011 Gold Cup final. That was no surprise—Mexico is experiencing a golden era.
We're calling it now: Mexico will make the quarterfinals in 2014. At least.
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The Messi Rule goes into effect with Portugal: Never underestimate the vale of a superstar in his prime at a major tournament.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be 29 during the 2014 World Cup. He'll never have a better chance to chase down international glory.
And let's not forget about Nani.
England has the talent, pedigree and manager to go all the way. Yes, they beat Spain, but they're still chokers until they prove otherwise.
And karma won't let any team captained by John Terry (that's actually Frank Lampard pictured serving as stand-in captain) win it all. What a loser.
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Uruguay, a surprise semifinalist at the 2010 World Cup, will have to replace the production (84 caps, 32 goals) and presence of Golden Ball winner Diego Forlán, who will be 35 by the time 2014 rolls around.
Edinson Cavani looks like a stud, and Luis Suarez is still a great player despite all the controversy surrounding him. We also like Gastón Ramírez and Alvaro Pereira in the midfield, and Diego Godín and Martín Caceres in the back line.
Playing so close to home, Uruguay might be a legit contender to win its third world title.
Come on. It's Brazil. And they'll be at home. When the tournament starts, they will be the favorite.
That No. 6 ranking is ridiculous. Brazil should never be outside the top four in any international football ranking, ever. We can feel the football gods staring at us for putting them this low.
Besides, in 2014 Neymar will be 22 and probably one of the world's best players.
Exhibit B in why no one takes FIFA's rankings too seriously: Germany destroys the Netherlands 3-0 in a November friendly; in December, FIFA ranks the Netherlands ahead of Germany. Go figure.
In Holland's defense, they did finish second in 2010 and they still have a ridiculously talented roster. Robin van Persie has never played better than he has this season, but the question is whether that will last until 2014. The midfield, meanwhile, features superstars in Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben.
If they stop playing as negatively as they did in 2010, the Dutch could challenge for the top prize again.
Germany retooled its entire footballing operation after the embarrassment of Euro 2000. The gamble has been paying off for half a decade now.
The first signs came in 2006, when a young German team advanced to the World Cup semifinals. They did it again in 2010 while playing some of the most attractive football on the planet.
A bunch of young stars emerged two years ago, notably playmaker Mesut Özil, forward Thomas Müller and midfielder Sami Khedira. Now the Germans have another batch of young talent led by Mario Götze, Mats Hummels and André Schürrle.
It's not just youth. The Germans have a talented core of experienced players, too, like defenders Philipp Lahm (the captain) and Per Mertesacker, central midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger and forwards Mario Gomez, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski.
There's little to dislike. This is the team with the best chance to knock off Spain at Euro 2012. And they could win it all again in 2014.
Spain overcame their long history of underachievement by winning Euro 2008 and followed with their first World Cup title two years ago in South Africa.
Now, Spain are up against even more history.
No team has ever won back-to-back Euros. The Soviet Union came closest, winning the inaugural tournament in 1960 and finishing runner-up to Spain four years later. West Germany did the same in 1972 and 1976, but also won the 1980 title.
Three teams have won European and world titles in consecutive tournaments: West Germany (Euro 1972 and World Cup 1974), France (World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000) and Spain (Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010).
The previous two failed to win the next major tournament. West Germany made the Euro 1976 final and France was eliminated at the group stage of the 2002 World Cup.
What does it mean? Actually, nothing. If any team can overcome those odds, it's Spain.