2014 World Cup: Ranking the 5 Favorites
In just 490 short days, the 2014 World Cup will kick off at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paolo.
As of now, 120 teams from six confederations are still able to qualify for the world's most-viewed sporting event, but in the coming months this list will be whittled down to an elite 31 nations, who will have the honor of joining hosts Brazil.
As the world's finest players report for international duty, the time seems right to take a look at the progress of the bookies' current favorites to clinch the spoils in South America next summer...
Hosting the tournament for the first time since 1950, Brazil are hot favorites to win their sixth World Cup trophy.
On paper, however, their recent form has not been inspiring. As hosts of the World Cup and Confederations Cup, they have not really been involved in competitive fixtures since the Copa America of July 2011, where they recorded a solitary win against Ecuador and crashed out to Paraguay in the quarterfinals.
Recently, a lot of their friendlies have been routs of lesser opposition: 8-0 against China in September 2012; 6-0 against Iraq in October; and 4-0 against Japan in Poland in the same month.
When they have faced stiffer opposition, the matches have been much tighter: a narrow victory over Argentina in the two-legged Superclasico de las Americas; and a 1-1 draw with Colombia in which Neymar infamously sent a penalty kick into row Z.
Thanks to their recent mixed fortunes, Brazil find themselves in 18th position in the FIFA rankings.
Now reunited with Luiz Felipe Scolari—the manager who guided them to victory in 2002—Brazil will face tougher friendly tests against the likes of England, Italy, Russia and France in the buildup to the Confederations Cup.
Big Phil's love of attacking football means this will be an exciting team to watch, with likely left- and right-backs Dani Alves and Adriano pushing up the field on a regular basis.
This young team has strength in all areas, and anything less than an appearance in the Final next summer will be a great surprise.
As the current World and European Champions, it's little surprise that the team that finished top of the FIFA rankings in 2012 for the fifth year in succession is a strong contender.
A European team has never won the World Cup in the Americas, but Spain do hold the privilege of being the only European side to win outside of Europe, with their triumph in Johannesburg in 2010.
The Spanish are in fine form, having lost just one competitive match since June 2009, their surprise defeat at the hands of Switzerland in their World Cup group opener.
Vicente del Bosque's troupe of tiki-taka artistes have been viewed as untouchable in recent years, but showed vulnerability in their most recent World Cup qualifier with France, missing out on their 25th-consecutive qualifier victory thanks to a (deserved) late equaliser from Olivier Giroud at the death.
After a money-spinning friendly with Uruguay in Qatar, La Roja will continue their World Cup qualification campaign by hosting Finland and visiting France in March. Then, they head to Brazil for the Confederations Cup, a competition from which they were eliminated by the United States in 2009.
Spain will go far in Brazil next summer, but they will be aware that several key members of the current generation will be getting on in years: Carles Puyol will be 36 and Xavi will be 34.
Argentina haven't managed to progress past the quarterfinal stage of the World Cup since they finished runners-up at Italia '90.
However, the side currently ranked third by FIFA are generally being considered third-favorites to triumph at the home of their fiercest rivals.
Aside from the aforementioned narrow penalty-shootout defeat to Brazil in the Superclásico de las Américas, the Albiceleste have not lost a match since an October 2011 World Cup qualifier in Venezuela.
With eight CONMEBOL qualification matches remaining, Alejandro Sabella's side sit comfortably at the top of the standings.
Not only will Argentina have the geography on their side—South American sides always do well in South America—but they boast one of the strongest lineups in years.
Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi are just some of the spoils they offer upfront. Javier Mascherano, Angel di Maria and Ever Banega are world-class midfield options, while a defence commanded by Pablo Zabaleta and Fabricio Coloccini is nothing to be sniffed at.
Oh, and they also happen to have the best player in the world as their captain.
This will be Leo Messi's best chance to win a World Cup, the honor that many believe he needs to win to be considered the best player of all time.
Never bet against Germany doing well.
Die Mannschaft have reached at least the semifinal stage in the last three World Cup tournaments (and in the last two Euro Championships), they've won it three times and finished runner-up on four other occasions.
Thanks to their irrepressible form in major competitions—and a perfect Euro 2012 qualification campaign that saw ten victories in ten matches—the Germans are now second in the FIFA rankings.
The man responsible is Joachim Loew, the master tactician who took over the team after the 2006 World Cup (and who is widely believed to have pulled the strings for predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann). He has brought style and beauty to a side somewhat stereotyped for their work rate and efficiency.
Legendary midfielder Gunter Netzer recently backed Die Nationalelf to go all the way in Brazil; however, they may struggle with a lack of attacking options.
With Miroslav Klose picking up a knee injury, Mario Gomez is the only striker to have been called up for the France friendly. Gomez has struggled to make the Bayern Munich starting XI since returning from his own injury.
It was hard not to feel sorry for the Netherlands, after being denied their first World Cup trophy in 2010 when Andres Iniesta's 116th-minute winner made them runners-up for the third time.
The Oranje will be hoping to be the proverbial bride and not the bridesmaid next summer, but will need to bounce back from their dreadful display at Euro 2012.
Holland are looking impressive once again under Louis van Gaal, and currently top their World Cup Qualification group after four straight wins, with 13 goals scored and only two conceded.
The emphasis in the Dutch squad seems to be on youth right now, with the squad for the Germany friendly containing ten players under the age of 23.
Feyenoord's young defenders Bruno Martins Indi, Daryl Janmaat and Stefan de Vrij are proving themselves at international level, while PSV's Kevin Strootman and AZ's Adam Maher have been impressive lately.