World Cup champions Spain are the undisputed best team in world football.
Should England be considered the sixth-best team in world football? Should Honduras be ranked 59th?
Later this week FIFA will release its latest World Rankings—that imperfect list compiled by impossible calculations, that eyebrow-raising exercise meant more for discussion than credibility.
So let’s discuss.
While the sport’s governing body, to its credit, has tried its best to produce an objective equation (rankings are made based on points gained from matches, the importance of the contest, the strength of the opponent and the quality of the confederation), the realities of geography, matches played and economic means combine to make true objectivity a futile target.
Nevertheless, the list never ceases to generate debate, and the one due to come out on Wednesday will be no exception. There will be righteous outrage over teams that should have climbed higher in the table; there will be indignation over the ones placed in those heights that shouldn’t have been.
But we might as well have fun with it. After all, there is little that so stirs the passions of football fans as international exploits. And with a World Cup looming on the horizon those passions will no doubt be as fierce as ever.
With that, we give you the Unofficial Bleacher Report World Football Rankings. The following slides will reveal our own version of the top-25 international teams, and readers are welcome to post their own rankings in the comments section below.
They’re well on their way to a second consecutive appearance in a World Cup finals and will be a dark horse at the summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup as well.
Midfielders Oscar Garcia, Mario Martinez and Roger Espinoza caused the United States no shortage of problems in their recent Hexigonal qualifier, and Jerry Bengston is developing a reputation for scoring timely international goals.
His tally against Spain at the 2012 Olympics was all his side needed to record a famous victory over La Roja in Newcastle.
One of only two African sides to crack this list, Ghana was its continent’s lone representative in the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup and will likely carry similar expectations into Brazil in 2014.
The Black Stars once again progressed as far as the quarterfinals at the recently-concluded Africa Cup of Nations but have undergone something of a generational shift in recent years that should keep them among the continent’s best sides going forward.
While they’re already graduating some of the players who helped win the 2009 FIFA U-20 World Cup (Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Andre Ayew among them), Ghana also boast attackers such as Kwadwo Asamoah and Asamoah Gyan who are in the primes of their careers.
They have stumbled out of the gate in World Cup qualifying but have a game in hand over much of UEFA’s Group B (Italy, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Armenia and Malta are also in the bracket), so a playoff berth remains a possibility.
A win over the Netherlands at Euro 2012 stands out as their most memorable result in recent times, but as Ajax midfielder Christian Eriksen continues to mature the Danes will likely contest a few more major tournaments in the next several years.
The stability brought by manager Morten Olsen has been vital to this team.
The 2004 European Champions emerged from a difficult group at Euro 2012 that also included Czech Republic, Russia and co-hosts Poland and caused Germany a few problems in the quarterfinals as well.
Since 2004 Greece have played four out of the five major tournaments available to them (missing only the 2006 World Cup) and are currently level with Bosnia-Herzegovina atop their 2014 World Cup qualification group.
Manager Fernando Santos has retained the defensive ethos of his predecessor Otto Rehhagel, but has loosened the reins in attack as well.
One of the entertainers of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Chile are currently embroiled in a fascinating qualification battle that will likely see one of themselves, Uruguay or Venezuela fail to punch their ticket to Brazil.
The likes of Monterrey striker Humberto Suazo, Barcelona winger Alexis Sanchez and Manchester United attacker Angelo Henriquez (on loan with Wigan) make Chile an exciting side to watch going forward, but in Juventus pair Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla they have some solid players in midfield as well.
Managerial instability has been a bit of a problem for Chile of late, but if the position is, in fact, sorted out they should be able to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, where they’re sure to make some waves.
The Super Eagles were crowned African champions on Sunday and are the highest-ranked African side on this list. (FIFA has them 52nd.)
Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel is the star of this team, although midfielder Sunday Mba—who plays his club football in Nigeria for Warri Wolves—looks to have a bright future ahead of him as well.
Up front CSKA winger Ahmed Musa continues to blossom into an effective attacker, and Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike already have a good relationship. The only concern centres around manager Stephen Keshi, who is thought to be at odds with the Nigeria Football Federation.
They were the only side to beat Spain at the 2010 World Cup, and at the 2006 tournament in Germany went out in the Round of 16 despite keeping four successive clean sheets (they lost on penalties to Ukraine).
Veteran manager Ottmar Hitzfeld oversees Switzerland these days, and he has a wealth of young talent at his disposal that should be in full bloom for the 2014 World Cup.
Goalkeeper Yann Sommer, midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri, Valentin Stocker and Granit Xhaka and striker Admir Mehmedi are all under 25-years of age and will form the core of Swiss sides for years to come.
Semifinalists at three World Cups (1938, 1950, 1958 and 1994) Sweden these days are synonymous with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is currently starring in France with Paris Saint-Germain.
Ibra has scored 39 goals in 86 appearances for his country and currently has them second to Germany in Group C of European qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
Manager Erik Hamren plays as traditional a 4-4-2 as remains in international football and is looking to guide Sweden into a third successive World Cup. They have made it as far as the Round of 16 in the previous two.
Since coming third at the 1998 World Cup Croatia have failed to get beyond the Group Stage on two occasions and missed the 2010 tournament altogether. They also fell at the first hurdle at Euro 2012, four years after making the quarterfinals.
That said, it is difficult to find a European side as enjoyable to watch as Croatia, and with World Cup qualifying about to hit the half-way mark they’re in good shape for a playoff spot at the very least.
Mario Mandzukic, who is tearing it up for Bayern Munich this season, is their most consistent threat of goal, and Real Madrid’s Luka Modric keeps things ticking along in the centre of the park.
But it’s in defense where games are won and lost for Croatia these days. Lacking the attacking talent of years past, defenders such as Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren, Gordon Schildenfeld and Vedran Corluka are of more importance to their national team than ever before.
Why so low? Simple. They haven’t been impressive.
The Mano Menezes experiment proved a disaster—he was, not surprisingly, unable to coax important results from a squad concocted of positional specialists—and they managed to create little in attack against England in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s first match back in charge.
Having said that, there is simply too much quality to have Brazil ranked any lower on this list, and if Neymar, Oscar and Lucas Moura can manage to forge an understanding going forward they should be able to drag the five-time World Cup winners to an even higher ranking.
Few international sides are as fascinating to follow these days as Belgium’s Red Devils.
At manager Marc Wilmots’ disposal are the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Christian Benteke and Eden Hazard. Go up and down the roster and you’ll any number of young, high-profile players you recognize.
After qualifying for every World Cup between 1982 and 2002, Belgium have missed the last two tournaments but are likely to be back on world football’s centre stage in 2014. They’re presently atop their difficult qualification group that also includes Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Wales and Scotland.
Japan are the only Asian side to make this list, and they check in at number 14.
The Blue Samurai have won three of the last four Asian Championships and have also qualified for the last four World Cup finals. On two occasions—in 2002 and 2010—they progressed to the Round of 16.
Alberto Zaccheroni (who formerly managed AC Milan, Inter Milan and Lazio) is in charge of Japan these days, and his exciting, attacking side includes players such as Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa, CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda and Stuttgart’s Shinji Okazaki.
Japan are currently atop AFC qualification Group B and lead second-place Australia by a whopping eight points.
They had a very disappointing Copa America in 2011 and haven’t progressed beyond the Group Stage of South America’s premier international competition since 1997.
Still, Ecuador have enjoyed an exceptional World Cup qualifying campaign (driven largely by their home form at the altitude of Quito) and are presently second in the CONMEBOL standings, just three points back of leaders Argentina.
They also managed to beat Portugal in a recent international friendly, and midfielders Antonio Valencia, Segundo Castillo, Jefferson Montero and Christian Noboa typically have them in contention in every match they play.
Here we find the Three Lions.
FIFA’s latest rankings have England sixth, with is ludicrous, although their recent win over Brazil at Wembley provided reason for optimism.
Jack Wilshere was easily the best player on the park that night, and Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott put in good performances as well. Manager Roy Hodgson also played a 4-3-3 formation, which made the best use of the players available to him.
If Wilshere can put in more performances like that, and if Rooney and Walcott can continue to forge an understanding up front, there’s no reason why England can’t turn that 2-1 win over Brazil into some serious international momentum.
Colombia made it through to the Round of 16 at Italia ’90 but went out at the Group Stage at both USA ’94 and France ’98 and haven’t been back to the World Cup since.
That’s likely to change in 2014, as the Coffee-Growers are currently sitting pretty in CONMEBOL qualifying—in the third spot and just four points back of Argentina.
Their U-20 side also just won the South American Youth Championship, so the likes of Juan Quintero, Jhon Cordoba and Juan Nieto will be coming through the pipeline shortly.
At the moment, however, Colombia are led by superstar striker Radamel Falcao, and Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez add further offensive pop.
One of Russia’s biggest problems in recent years has been their inability to rise to the occasion in big matches. They missed out on the 2010 World Cup after losing a playoff to Slovenia and also failed to get out of their group at Euro 2012 following a surprising loss to Greece.
But there is talent galore in manager Fabio Capello’s side. Aleksander Anyukov, Sergei Ignashevich, the Berezutskiy brothers and Yuri Zhirkov provide stability at the back, while in attack Alan Dzagoev is a creative force and Aleksanr Kerzhakov is capable of popping in the goals (if only he wasn’t so wasteful).
Russia is 10th on this list because of the players that make up their squad and also because, for the first time since 2002, they’re likely to qualify for a World Cup. Their 12 points in UEFA’s Group F has them five above both Israel and Portugal.
So why, then, are Portugal ranked above Russia? Because they start slow in qualifying but inevitably qualify, and have a far better record at international tournaments than their Group F rivals.
Portugal’s showing at Euro 2012, where they went out on penalties to eventual winners Spain, was a reminder of just how good they can be, and also of just how dominating Cristiano Ronaldo can be when he’s fussed enough to pick up the team and carry it on his shoulders.
Manager Paulo Bento has a solid defense anchored by Pepe and Bruno Alves, and Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso form a useful midfield. But it’s Ronaldo around whom this team is built, and he will carry their hopes into the 2014 World Cup.
They are scrappy and, by all accounts, not a lot of fun to play against. But Uruguay are also very, very good.
Champions of the 2011 Copa America, they went all the way to the semifinals of the last World Cup and are poised to make a similar run this time around, although they’ll need to go on a bit of a run in CONMEBOL qualifying to confirm their involvement.
Forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are the faces of this team, but Walter Gargano, Arevalo Rios and Diego Perez lose very few midfield battles. There are one or two questions in defense, but the midfield is typically strong enough to overshadow those.
Les Bleus are one of those sides who require a maestro in order to get the orchestra to play. It’s no coincidence that their best moments in international football came in the mid-1980s when Michel Platini was running things and again in the late 1990s when Zinedine Zidane was among the best players in the world.
No player in the current France side comes close to those two, and so the challenge for manager Didier Deschamps is to somehow coax results despite the absence of a true talisman. So far he’s doing a pretty good job.
Newcastle midfielder Yohan Cabaye has emerged as a Deschamps favourite, and another Magpies midfielder—Moussa Sissoko—has been getting caps of late as well.
Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery are capable of producing the occasional bit of magic in attack, but perhaps the most promising player in this squad is Real Madrid midfielder Raphael Varane, who shone in a recent Copa del Rey match against Barcelona.
We’re still waiting for that day when Lionel Messi straps Argentina to his back and carries them to international glory. Wouldn’t it be something if it happened in Brazil?
The two-time World Cup winners are flying high atop CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying at the moment, and Messi’s seven goals has him atop the campaign’s scoring charts alongside teammate Gonzalo Higuain and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez.
With Messi, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Higuain all available to him manager Alejandro Sabella enters every match with a selection conundrum, but he seems to have hit on something approaching a balance in recent matches, which is bad news for the rest of the world.
They are the Olympic champions, the Gold Cup champions, the U-17 World Cup champions and the Toulon Tournament champions. And now, for the first time, Mexico are heading toward a World Cup as legitimate contenders for the first time in their history.
Their win in the Olympic final against Brazil was no fluke. Mexico has been pumping out exceptional players for several years now, and it’s a generation whose time has come.
Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez is the team’s most high-profile player, but Marco Fabian, Andres Guardado, Angel Reyna and Hector Herrera form a menacing midfield, and under head coach Jose Manuel de la Torre, El Tri have the ability to beat any opponent at any time.
They’ve gone out at the Round of 16 in each of the last five World Cups, so Mexico’s first order of business will be to remedy that record in 2014.
World Cup finalists in 2010, they fell to pieces two years later at the European Championship. Dutch sides seem to have that about them—the ability to both thrive and self-destruct.
Not surprisingly the Netherlands are currently atop their World Cup qualification group (which also includes Hungary, Romania and Turkey) with a 100 per cent record through four matches. What’s rather more astonishing is that their top goalscorer in the campaign is neither Robin van Persie nor Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but PSV Eindhoven attacker Jermain Lens.
That the Dutch have a lethal attack (when everything’s ticking) comes as news to no one, so manager Louis van Gaal’s most important task will be to solidify a defense that has its wobbles on occasion.
It is also vitally important to the Netherlands that playmaker Wesley Sneijder plays regular, first-team football—something he’s getting at Galatasaray.
Their implosion against Spain in the Euro 2012 final did not do them justice.
Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side is star-studded from top to bottom, and one of the things that has made the current manager so successful has been his willingness to include players based solely on their play rather than reputation. Bologna’s Alessandro Diamanti, who doesn’t represent one of the peninsula’s big clubs, is a perfect example of this.
Italy also have a good group of youngsters coming down the pipeline at just the right time. Striker Stefan El Shaarawy has been ripping it up for AC Milan so far this season, and Marco Verratti is one of Europe’s most promising central midfielders at just 20 years of age.
Then there is Salvatore Sirigu—the heir apparent to long-time number-one goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Germany have progressed from the group stage (or the old “first group stage”) in every World Cup they’ve entered, and in the last eight World Cups they’ve made it at least as far as the quarterfinals. An incredible record.
Die Mannschaft go into every international tournament a contender, and that will be no different at the 2014 World Cup.
No side, in either international or club football, plays the 4-2-3-1 to such perfection (with the possible exception of Bayern Munich), and manager Joachim Low has the luxury of being able to slot two or three players into each position without detracting from the overall quality of the side.
Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger are among the best central midfield partnerships in world football, and in front of them the likes of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus and Mario Gomez are capable of breaking down any defense.
No surprise here. They have only won the last two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup—and under two different managers, no less.
This is truly the age of Xavi and Iniesta, who have won all there is to win for both Spain and Barcelona. As long as the two of them are healthy, La Roja will take some beating.
Around them is the most gifted group of international players of this generation. Sergio Busquets is one of the best defensive midfielders in the game; David Silva terrorizes full-backs; Juan Mata is a threat from distance; Isco, just 20, represents the coming of age of a new group of Spain internationals.
The only question-mark for this side is up front, where manager Vicente del Bosque has Fernando Torres, David Villa, Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado among his options, although none of the quartet have been all that consistent for the national team of late.
Not that it need be a major issue. Spain won Euro 2012 with only three goals from an out-and-out striker (Torres), and three of their goals in the 4-0 trouncing of Italy in the final came from elsewhere (Silva, Mata and Jordi Alba).