Face it. When it comes to compiling a list like this, subjectivity rules.
We’re not putting together an alternative FIFA ranking, here. Rather, we’re looking at the recent performances of 20 sides we expect to be in Brazil less than 14 months from now and arranging them in ascending order based on form.
Having said that, we’re not going to include New Zealand (sorry, Kiwis) even though they’re already assured of a two-legged playoff against a CONCACAF side after topping the Oceania table. And we’re not going to include Mexico, either, even though they’ll almost certainly be at the World Cup despite a disappointing start to The Hex. Their recent results simply haven’t been good enough.
We’re also going to dethrone Spain because, well, let’s face it, their draw against Finland didn’t exactly set the world alight.
Let’s get to it.
Since Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as Brazil manager for a second spell, the five-time world champions have lost to England, drawn Italy and Russia and beaten Bolivia in a home-based friendly.
In other words, they’re having major problems barely a year before they host the 2014 World Cup—a reality that was recently reflected with their fall to 19th-place in the FIFA rankings.
The only reason they’re on this list is, well, because they’re Brazil, and because they’ll be putting on the competition. They also looked half decent in the 2-2 draw with Italy in Geneva, although there’s still plenty of work to be done before they can be considered serious contenders.
The United States followed a disheartening 2-1 loss away to Honduras with a gutsy, 1-0 win over Costa Rica in Denver on March 22 and four days later earned a memorable 0-0 draw against Mexico at the Azteca.
The four points significantly reduced the amount of criticism manager Jurgen Klinsmann had been facing, and in the two matches the German hit on some chemistry in the form of an attacking trio of Graham Zusi, Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez behind striker Jozy Altidore and a defensive partnership of Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson.
The United States have some momentum behind them at the moment, and it’s been a while since we’ve been able to say that.
They’re not exactly in a lot of danger of missing the 2014 World Cup, but England are two points back of Montenegro with four matches to play and may well be forced to qualify through the playoffs.
Which shouldn’t really be all that surprising.
While the Three Lions have devoured the likes of San Marino and Moldova in UEFA qualification Group H, they have yet to win a single match against their most serious rivals in the bracket—Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro.
The Pharaohs were considered a potential darkhorse favourite in the months leading up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but then they lost a two-legged playoff to Algeria and didn’t even make it to the competition.
Their chances are looking somewhat better this time around.
Through three Group Stage matches Bob Bradley’s side have taken the maximum nine points and have a five-point cushion on Guinea with three rounds to play. Of course, there will still be that little matter of the CAF playoff round.
Switzerland went out of the 2006 World Cup without conceding a single goal and were the only side to defeat Spain four years later in South Africa.
With their UEFA qualification Group E campaign at its halfway point, the Swiss have a two-point lead on second-place Iceland and have yet to lose in the bracket.
They’ll likely qualify for Brazil 2014 automatically, and if history teaches us anything it’s that they won't be pushovers once they get there.
Like Egypt, Russia were expected to make an impression in South Africa, but like Egypt, they lost a two-legged playoff (to Slovenia) and failed to even make it to the 2010 World Cup.
Again, like Egypt, it looks as though they’ll be in Brazil '14 months from now.
Fabio Capello’s side have won all four of their UEFA qualification Group F matches to date and have yet to concede a single goal so far. But they haven’t played a competitive match since October and will face a stiff test when they face Portugal in Lisbon in seven weeks’ time.
If the World Cup began today, Chile would be in automatically.
An impressive 2-0 win over 2010 semifinalists Uruguay on March 26 took La Roja to fourth in the CONMEBOL standings after 11 rounds, but with upcoming matches against Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela their fate is very much in their own hands.
Still, few teams in the Americas can field a side with as much talent as Jorge Sampaoli, and with three of their last five matches to be played in Santiago, Chile will be looking to ride their home form to a place in the 2014 World Cup.
France could have overtaken Spain atop UEFA qualification Group I with a win at Saint-Denis on March 26, but despite a hatful of chances they were kept at bay by the reigning world and European champions, who got a goal from Pedro just prior to the hour-mark and went on to claim a 1-0 win.
And so, with their two matches against Spain already in the books, France will likely have to contest a two-legged playoff in order to get to their 14th World Cup finals. It shouldn’t be a problem.
Manager Didier Deschamps has a talented group of up-and-coming players who are just starting to break through at international level. Raphael Varane is the most high-profile, but Moussa Sissoko and Paul Pogba will also be important parts of Les Bleus over the next few years.
Bosnia-Herzegovina were denied access to both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 by Portugal, to whom they lost successive two-legged playoff ties, but with five matches to play in UEFA qualification Group G they’re in good shape to qualify for Brazil 2014 automatically.
The Dragons have dominated the bracket so far and have yet to lose through five rounds while posting an impressive goal difference of +15.
They laid down their World Cup credentials on March 22 when they beat Greece 3-1 in Zenica—Manchester City’s Eden Dzeko bagging a brace.
Only Argentina have scored more goals than Colombia in South American qualifying, and the Coffee Growers will have a chance to make up some ground on the CONMEBOL leaders when they visit Buenos Aires on June 7.
Colombia’s loss to Venezuela on March 26 was their first defeat in five competitive matches, and with a game in hand on many of their closest rivals they look in good shape to advance to just their fifth World Cup tournament.
Atletico Madrid’s Radamel Falcao is the talisman of this team, although Jackson Martinez and Fredy Guarin add further star power to a side that will be a tough out in Brazil.
There’s a reason Montenegro are this high in our Power Rankings: they’re good, and they’re getting good results.
Branko Brnovic’s side have yet to lose in UEFA qualification Group H, which shouldn’t be surprising given that, man for man, they have the sort of skill level that would make most managers green with envy.
From Mirko Vucinic to Stevan Jovetic to Elsad Zverotic to Simon Vukcevic, they are technically gifted from top to bottom and, as a result, look a good bet to qualify for the 2014 World Cup automatically.
The reigning Asian Cup champions are running away with AFC qualification Group B and are a lock to gain entry to a fifth successive World Cup finals.
That said, their three-match winning streak was ended by Jordan on March 26, so they won’t be taking anything for granted just yet.
Skilled attackers Shinji Kagawa and Takashi Inui are both only 24 years of age, and Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Okazaki—other key players—are also under 30. This is one of the best ever installments of the Blue Samurai.
A vibrant economy and an incoming group of blue-chip prospects has combined to produce both a credible domestic league and competitive national team in Ecuador.
La Tri are unbeaten in their last seven competitive matches—a run that has included wins over Uruguay and Chile—and also beat Portugal in a friendly match in February.
Lokomotiv Moscow striker Felipe Caicedo has contributed five goals to the qualification cause while Club America forward Christian Benitez (formerly of Birmingham City) has added four tallies.
Italy have dropped just two points in qualification and lead UEFA Group B by three points with five rounds to play.
Manager Cesare Prandelli has done ever so well to blood in a new generation of internationals (Stephan El Shaarawy, Mario Balotelli, Mattia De Sciglio) while maintaining the best parts of the old, established guard (Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon) and, as a result, has positioned the Azzurri to be competitive for years to come.
One of the favourites going into the 2014 World Cup, they’ll be looking to do one better than their losing performance in the final of Euro 2012.
Croatia kept pace with UEFA qualification Group A leaders Belgium in March, beating archrivals Serbia 2-0 in Zagreb before traveling to Wales and posting a 2-1 win at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium.
Four different players found the back of the net for the Blazers over the two matches, and after failing to qualify for the 2010 World Cup the team is well-positioned to get back to world football’s biggest stage 14 months from now.
Luka Modric is Croatia’s engine room, but with the likes of Mario Mandzukic up top and Dejan Lovren in defense there is considerable quality up and down the roster.
They are international football’s hot new thing.
Through six qualification matches, Belgium have dropped only two points while conceding just a single goal. And while their 11 goals for could be higher, there exists the sort of quality in Marc Wilmots’ squad to find the back of the net with more regularity.
Kevin Mirallas, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke headline the Belgium attack while just behind them the likes of Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini and Eden Hazard add the sort of creativity other teams can only dream of.
The Netherlands have made easy work of qualifications in recent times, and the 2014 cycle has been no exception.
They are the only side in UEFA to have won six straight qualification matches, and with four rounds to play have a nearly unassailable seven-point cushion on Hungary.
Robin van Persie has scored five goals in the campaign to date while Rafael van der Vaart and Jermain Lens have added four apiece. Wesley Sneijder’s move to Galatasaray has also been useful to the national side as one of their most creative players is getting regular football once again.
Remember when Lionel Messi supposedly “couldn’t do it” for the national team?
Well, the world’s best player has seven goals in Argentina’s last eight competitive matches, and with the Albiceleste flying high in CONMEBOL qualifying you can forgive the rest of the world for quivering at the thought of facing Alejandro Sabella’s side in Brazil.
Under Sabella, Argentina have managed to make a team out of their myriad attacking options. Gonzalo Higuain has been exceptional in qualifying and Sergio Aguero has looked dangerous as well.
Their two matches with France out of the way (they got four points from them), Spain are now set to cruise into the 2014 World Cup via automatic qualification from UEFA’s Group I.
Having said that, there have been indications that world football’s top international side are rather more beatable these days—something that was never more evident than in a 1-1 draw at home to Finland on March 22.
Four days later, however, the reigning world and European champions beat France in Saint-Denis, and all was well again. As long as Xavi and Andres Iniesta remain in the team, Spain will remain the favourite to lift the World Cup in Brazil.
That 4-4 draw at home to Sweden, in which they blew a 4-0 lead with less than half an hour to play, may just end up being the sort of wake-up call Germany required.
Having progressed at least as far as the semifinals in every major tournament since Euro 2004, Germany’s culture of success is ingrained, so no doubt the nature of the draw came as a shock to the system.
Even so, they are unbeaten in their last eight internationals—a run that has included a draw with the Netherlands in Amsterdam and a win over France at Saint-Denis—and manager Joachim Low is blooding in a new group of players that includes Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle and Ilkay Gundogan.
Of course, international veterans Philipp Lahm, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are still in the primes of their careers (Muller is only 23 but has 41 caps to his name), so Germany will be better positioned to win the World Cup in 2014 than at any time since they last lifted the trophy at Italia ’90.