2014 World Cup Qualifying: Predicting the Field of 32

M.F. DiBellaCorrespondent IJuly 11, 2012

2014 World Cup Qualifying: Predicting the Field of 32

0 of 32

    Euro 2012 whet your appetite for the gallantry and infamy of World Football. There's the Olympic competition in August, but most football fanatics will really only be biding their time until World Cup 2014.

    Destination: Brazil. A country where many of its citizens sincerely believe the cup rightfully belongs, permanently. That sense of entitlement comes from the Selecao's capturing of the trophy a record five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002).

    The Pentacampeones will be one of the tournament's odds-on favorites and will qualify automatically, but there are 31 additional slots that are sure to be hotly contested in the build-up.

    Before 2002, cup holders also received an automatic bid, but these days Spain will have to earn their way in as well (their U-17 team might be able to do the trick).

    As of press time July 2012, there were 128 national teams competing for the remaining 31 spots. Six confederations feed the field with various competition formats and criteria for qualifying. Here's the confederation breakdown for the uninitiated:

    UEFA (13 qualifers)

    CONMEBOL (4 or 5 qualifers)

    CAF (5 qualifiers)

    AFC (4 or 5 qualifiers)

    CONCACAF (3 or 4 qualifiers)

    OFC (0 or 1 qualifer)

    The final two spots are granted via two-legged Inter-Confederation playoffs:

    AFC 5th Place vs. CONMEBOL 5th Place

    OFC 1st Place vs. CONCACAF 4th Place

    In the spirit of digital soothsaying, we've summoned the football gods in an attempt to predict the field. Dammit Jim! We're  writers, not mathematicians. However, we went ahead and developed a simple grade-school coefficient for our predictions anyway. The good old-fashioned 100 percent grading scale. Step aside, Stephen J. Hawking.

    Let's commence with the educated guessing, starting with UEFA...

Spain

1 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 100

    Hoisting trophies has become commonplace for Espana. The only question for Spain is can they become the first back-to-back World Cup winners since Brazil did the deed in 1958 and 1962.

    The majority of this team remains young, with only Xavi, David Villa and Carles Puyol (all three Barcelona players) and Iker Casillas (Real Madrid) truly approaching international retirement age. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) is a mere 23 and just like talent-rich countries Brazil, Argentina and Germany, Spain's footballers that don't die, they multiply.

Germany

2 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 100

    Euro 2012 was thought to be Germany's glorious return to the Winners' Circle. All the bloated punditry surrounding the team must have gone to the side's collective head, as they failed to show up in the first half of their semifinal against arch-nemesis Italy.

    Nothing short of Angela Merkel collapsing the entire European Union could stop Die Mannschaft from qualifying for World Cup 2014.

Portugal

3 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 99.5

    Only a penalty kick fiasco prevented Portugal from going through to the final at Euro 2012. Cristiano Ronaldo will be on a mission to silence his critics yet again. Book their reservations for Brazil 2014, Dan-O (or Nani if you prefer).

Italy

4 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 98.5

    Close but no Sigaro. The Italians acquitted themselves more than admirably in Poland/Ukraine. After a six-year letdown, the Azzurri are back in the conversation for global football supremacy.

    A somewhat tough UEFA Group Two (Czech Republic, Denmark) will probably not be enough to stop the resurgent Boys In Azure from bringing their new attacking brand of football to Brazil.

England

5 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 98.5

    The Three Lions are forever saddled by the most tempestuous of fan bases and media machines. Say what you want about the melodrama, England has failed to qualify for the World Cup only three times since they first entered the competition in 1950 (1994 was painful but their supporters really only care about one date though, and that's 1966).

    England is almost sure to qualify, but in the meantime you're sure to hear about every single solitary sordid moment of the players' and coaches' daily lives.

The Netherlands

6 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 98

    The Dutch weren't much at Euro 2012. They came with aspirations of ascending to the World Football Penthouse, and ended up leaving through the service entrance (show of hands: who can relate to that scenario right about now?).

    The Netherlands' rich footballing history and the country's tremendous respect for the purity of the sport will help the Oranje regroup in the coming months. While the mainstays are aging, there's simply too much talent in the Dutch system to even consider their missing out on the Samba Party.

    A soft Group Four (Turkey is the only other possible threat to top this group) ensures the Dutch passage to Brazil.

France

7 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 97

    It seemed like Les Bleus were finally exiting their Blue Period as the Euro 2012 competition got under way. Then came Samir Nasri's diva moment.

    The French love to rally around their fellow dissenters, so while nothing could top their 2010 mutiny, they figured they'd at least make their exit from the Euros memorable.

    Let's take a moment to give the classy Franck Ribery (and others) a nice little mention also.

    The shrewish elements of L'Equipe will not be enough to keep them out of World Cup 2014. Too much talent. Tell your wives and girlfriends about the ongoing reality show entitled The French Dissensionthey might just join you while you nerd out during the next big football match.

Russia

8 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 94.5

    Russia were more than a bit unlucky not to go deeper in the Euro 2012 tournament. They are talent-laden, but would perhaps benefit from the proper steward. Who that will be remains to be seen after Dick Advocaat stepped down in late June. Despite having some horrendous supporters, there's very little to suggest this team won't pull it together during World Cup qualifying.

Croatia

9 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 94

    Despite a regime change, Croatia should be on the Brazil 2014 guest list. With only Belgium standing in their way in a relatively weak Group One, Croatia look poised to return to the Coppa after failing to qualify in 2010.

Switzerland

10 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 92

    The Swiss have the easiest qualifying group with only Norway and Slovenia to contend with. Their roster is none too shabby, with the likes of Gokhan Inler (Napoli), Eren Derdiok (Hoffenheim), Tranquilo Barnetta (Schalke 04) and an emerging talent in Xherden Shaqiri (Bayern Munich).

    We'll give the Swiss the nodthe wink wink, the nudge nudge, whatever.

Greece

11 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 84

    Someone has to win UEFA's shockingly poor qualifying Group Seven. Bosnia-Herzegovina or Slovakia are the only teams with a case.

    Greece surprised a few beard-scratching scribes by getting to the knockout phase (and even putting a couple goals past Germany in a 4-2 quarterfinal loss) at Euro 2012.

    The team's core is well past its prime, but we're not going to wear out a bottle of Grecian Formula over this selection. It's all Greek to me.

Sweden

12 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 84

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his late prime and young talent on the rise is enough to see Sweden through. They're not going to beat out Germany in Group Three, but we're guessing the Swedes have the moxy to make it through a two-legged playoff.

Belgium

13 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 82

    A slight reach, but Belgians are getting that Goapele in the Premier League and other top markets these days. The talent pool in Belgium goes beyond Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Alex Witsel (Benfica) and Vincent Kompany (Manchester City). Top to bottom, the Red Devils have one of the more impressive squads in Europe in terms of club distribution.

    The Flemish Flotilla hasn't been this good since the days of Enzo Scifo and Michel Preud'homme (Belgium finished fourth in the 1986 World Cup). A bit of a reach to put them in the field, but they are in one of the weaker qualifying groups in UEFA.

    On to CONMEBOL...

Argentina

14 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 100

    Lionel Messi. Lock City. Need we say more?

Uruguay

15 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 97

    Uruguay climbed back to the upper echelon of football in 2010. A respectable fourth place finish capped off the side's best performance since 1970.

    Despite the karmic conundrum that is Luis Suarez (Liverpool), the Uruguayans have a surfeit of quality with the likes of Edison Cavani (Napoli) and Cristian Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid).

    Expect a 2nd or 3rd place finish for Uruguay in a rather top-heavy CONMEBOL.

Chile

16 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 91

    Chile raised a few eyebrows at World Cup 2010 by making it to the knockout stage for the first time since 1998 (the last time they qualified for the Cup). Alexis Sanchez (Barcelona), Arturo Vidal (Juventus) and Matias Fernandez (Sporting Lisbon) anchor this fairly talented side that has seen its FIFA and Elo rankings rise steadily over the last few years.

Ecuador

17 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 90

    Ecuador made it to the Round of 16 at World Cup 2006 in just their second ever appearance in the competition. While they missed the boat in 2010, the squad looks like they have enough to be CONMEBOL's fourth automatic qualifier.

    With a player the caliber of Antonio Valencia (Manchester United) and a prolific striker in Christian Benitez (Club America), La Tri should have the necessary firepower to make the trek east to Brazil.

Colombia

18 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 70

    It's safe to say Colombia has been in the Dark Ages in terms of World Cup qualification since 1998 (many would argue that their defeat to the USA in the 1994 World Cup was the beginning of their decline).

    If Los Cafeteros are to qualify for Brazil, the squad will take the road less traveled. A two-legged showdown against a team from the Asian Confederation (Iran, Iraq or Qatar by our calculations) will likely be their path to glory.

    They have a dynamic striker in Radamel Falcao (Atletico Madrid) and a decent cadre of young talent playing in Europe. Roll of the dice here, but we do not fear the crap out.

    The most unpredictable confederation is next with the CAF...

Ivory Coast

19 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 94

    The CAF competition may just be the most wide open of the six confederations. The closest thing to a lock is probably the Ivorians. Didier Drogba is 34 now but could still help Les Elephants reach their third straight World Cup.

    With the likes of Solomon Kalou (Lille), Gervinho (Arsenal) and Yaya Toure (Manchester City), we see Cote D'Ivoire in the field of 32.

Senegal

20 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 90

    The Senegalese turned the football world on its ear at the 2002 World Cup, which was the nation's one and only appearance in the competition. Defeating title-holders France in the opening game of that tournament will stand the test of time as one of the World Cup's all-time shock results; they went on to defeat Sweden in the Round of 16 before falling to third-place-finishers Turkey.

    The Lions of Teranga have a bona fide sniper in Papiss Cisse (Newcastle) and a number of other strong Ligue 1 and EPL talents. They should have enough balance to claim their spot in the field.

Ghana

21 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 89

    The Black Stars have been the best African side since their coming-out party at the 2006 World Cup. It's safe to say they peaked after their controversial exit from World Cup 2010, but they are still a classy outfit.

    Sulley Muntari (AC Milan) and Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain) have the pedigree to lead Ghana on another successful WCQ campaign.

Egypt

22 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 84

    Amidst a climate of political chaos, football is often a country's only saving grace. Somehow Egypt has only qualified once for the World Cup (1990). They have won the African Cup of Nations seven times including a three-peat from 2006-2010.

    Stars like Mohammed Aboutrika (Al-Ahly) are in their golden years but they should have enough quality to be one of the five CAF representatives.

Tunisia

23 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 74

    The CAF is the most challenging to predict. Many countries are rising through the ranks rapidly on the African continent, including Zambia, surprise winners of the 2012 Africa Cup Of Nations.

    With little or no visibility into who will play who in the final phase of the competition (ten group winners face off in two-legged ties, much like UEFA's second place group finishers), we're inclined to reward past performance.

    Tunisia have qualified for 4 previous World Cups including a string of three straight (1998-2006). While the squad is mostly domestically-based, they do have a few European club regulars, including all-time leading scorer Isaam Jemaa (Auxerre) who's scored 30 goals for the national team at the tender age of 28.

    You were probably hoping for a wild-card pick but we'll save that for the AFC...

Japan

24 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 96

    Japan has qualified for the last four World Cups, twice making it to the round of 16. Japan's performance at South Africa 2010 was something of a surprise, winning twice in the group stage before falling to Paraguay on penalties.

    With a maestro in Keisuke Honda (CSKA Moscow), a prolific striker in Shinji Okazaki (Stuttgart) and the perfect combination of tenure and emerging talent (namely Shinji Kagawa), it's easy to pinpoint Japan as the class of the AFC.

South Korea

25 of 32

    Qualification Likelihood: 94

    While South Korea's string of seven straight World Cup appearances (dating back to 1986) is undoubtedly impressive, it was the Taegeuk Warriors' run to the semifinals in the 2002 tournament (which they co-hosted with Japan) that put the nation squarely on the world football map.

    While they found themselves in a relatively weak Group B in South Africa 2010, South Korea finished second in the group, which was still something of a surprise.

    The overall quality level of the South Korean side has tailed off of late, but they do have EPL representation in Park Chu-Young (Arsenal) and Ji Dong-Won (Sunderland) as well as a number of veterans who have logged plenty of caps and scored their share of goals.

Australia

26 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 85

    It's safe to say the Aussies are experiencing a bit of a decline after nearly reaching the quarterfinals of World Cup 2006 (their highest ever finish).

    The talent level has dropped considerably with most of their core at age 28 and above; including Luke Wilkshire (30, Dynamo Moscow) Tim Cahill (32, Everton) and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer (39, Fulham).

    We refuse to call them by their ridiculous nickname, but we're willing to wager a Bloomin' Onion or two Australia will be in the field of 32.

Iran

27 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 75

    The so-called Axis of Evil showed U.S. Soccer a thing or two back in the 1998 World Cup. Leaving all other political discourse out of the matter, we've been forced to see Iran as the fourth automatic qualifier out of the AFC.

    Iran has qualified for the Cup three times in its history, their only victory is aforementioned. This current Iran side benefits from a weak AFC Group B and could very well be the luckiest of all 32 teams to make the field; only Qatar and longshot (assholes) Uzbekistan could overtake them.

    They do have prolific scorers in Javad Nekounam (Osasuna) and former Bayern Munich man Ali Karimi. They also have a well-respected Portuguese coach in Carlos Queiroz.

    Sigh.

    CONCACAF is next on the docket...

Mexico

28 of 32

    Qualification Likelihood: 99

    Barring a catastrophic slew of injuries, there's really no conceivable way an ascendant El Tri could miss out on the Brazilian Carnival.

    Chicarito (Manchester United), Giovanni Dos Santos (Tottenham), Andres Guardado (Valencia) and Hector Moreno (Espanyol) are four of the best players in CONCACAF. The tradition, the system and the pride will likely help them run away with this qualifying competition.

United States

29 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 98

    One would think World Cup qualifying for the U.S.A. would be something of an afterthought at this point in time. Though having qualified for the last six World Cups dating back to 1990, the Yanks always seem to make life interesting. Recent case in point: surrendering two points late to Guatemala in a CONCACAF qualifer.

    The Jurgen Klinsmann era is not even one year old (at press time), but there have been more lackluster results (like a 4-1 home friendly loss to Brazil) than impressive wins (a 1-0 friendly win in Italy and a 5-1 home victory over Scotland).

    Landon Donovan may or may not be experiencing burnout, and outside of Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Michael Bradley (AS Roma) and Maurice Edu (Rangers) the team is mostly devoid of viable young talent.

    It's safe to say the U.S. are going to qualify for Brazil, but don't be surprised if the ride gets a little bumpy (once again).

Panama

30 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 75

    Another definite reach, but after seeing the Panmaniacs dispose of the U.S. in the Gold Cup two years ago (the U.S. would exact revenge on Panama in the semifinal), we believe this team can make it out of CONCACAF somehow.

    They've won two recent qualifying matches including a decisive 2-0 result against a fading Honduras side (CONCACAF's fourth representative in South Africa). Strikers Blas Perez (FC Dallas) and Luis Tejada (Juan Aurich, Peru) form a potent attacking tandem.

    Perhaps the smart money for the third automatic qualifier from this region would be on Costa Rica, but they are also declining in recent years (despite qualifying for South Africa). We've been mostly conservative with our picks, so let's live a little with this Canal Crew selection.

New Zealand

31 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 72

    Last and quite possibly least is the Kiwi situation. New Zealand finally qualified for its second World Cup after defeating Bahrain in a two-legged inter-confederation showdown in 2010. The New Zealanders went on to draw all three of their matches in South Africa including a 1-1 stunner against Italy.

    While squaring off against the likes of Tahiti and New Caledonia in the OFC doesn't exactly prep a side for the pressure of an inter-confederation knockout series, we're going to give Shane Smeltz (Perth Glory) and the boys the nod over the fourth place finisher from CONCACAF (likely Costa Rica). They say this Chris Wood (West Brom) kid is the real deal.

    Lord Of The Rings fans rejoice.

From the Cutting Room Floor: Iraq

32 of 32

    Qualification Probability: 70

    The real shocker of this crystal ball session got shattered as one of our readers correctly pointed out an AFC qualification incongruency.

    The Iraqis have only qualified once (1986). You know, back when George H.W. Bush and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots.

    You have to appreciate Iraq's historic 2007 Asian Cup victory, which was a transcendent moment for a country that has been one of the epicenters for tragedy and bloodshed in the 21st century.

    You'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of Iraqi players playing their football outside of the Arab world (Nashat Akram is one, a recent Malaga signing), but with legendary Brazilian Zico now coaching the side, we will leave this as our feel-good contingency pick as they could play their way in by upstaging Australia or beating the 5th place finisher from CONMEBOL.

    And there you have it. Feel free to open up the debate on this one and add your own list of 31 in the comments section. Check back with me in two years time. I'm willing to bet my entire paycheck that I go at least 27 for 31.