With just over a year remaining before the 2014 World Cup, the football world is starting to look forward to the world's most famous tournament.
However, even for ardent fans, the qualification process and all of its intricacies can be quite daunting.
After all, every continent has a different process, with some teams qualifying outright and others entering playoffs with nations from other continents.
As a result, many fans are unable to become too interested in these early stages of the World Cup, instead waiting until the field is clearer before really following the pursuit of the trophy.
Rather than waiting for that, though, let's analyze the standings and predict the 32 nations that will take part in the tournament next summer.
So where does every nation stand at this point in the World Cup qualification process?
Here is a complete breakdown of the qualification standings heading into the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
The World Cup qualification process in Asia started with 43 teams.
At this point, three rounds have passed, and only 10 teams remain.
Those 10 teams have been separated into two groups of five teams each, where every nation is set to play each of the other nations twice, home and away.
In these groups, the top two finishers will qualify directly for the World Cup, while the bottom two will be eliminated. Meanwhile, the two third-place finishers will play a playoff in order to see which will play in an intercontinental playoff with a South American team.
Of the eight matches that every nation is to play, each has played either five or six matches, with no team either qualifying or getting eliminated as of yet.
Through six matches, Uzbekistan has an improbable lead in this group.
The group favorites, South Korea, do have a match in hand, though, and with a home fixture with the Uzbeks still to come, it is hard to favor any other team to win this group.
Meanwhile, Lebanon's incredible win against Iran may be a famous one for their nation, but it's unlikely that they will find a way to finish anywhere but bottom.
Qatar is making a good push for the World Cup with their hosting duties in 2022 on the horizon. However, with six matches played, they are only even with Iran, who have only played five matches, so it's tough to see them finding a way out of the elimination spots.
That leaves just Iran and Uzbekistan.
While Iran were favored to come through this group, they find themselves in some trouble now.
Because of the standings, the Iranians might just need Uzbekistan to slip up at home to Qatar to have any chance of nicking second.
Instead, it's much more likely that they fall into a playoff spot.
Qualify: South Korea, Uzbekistan
Eliminated: Qatar, Lebanon
At the start of qualification, it seemed as though Japan and Australia would be fighting over the first and second positions while easily qualifying for Brazil.
Instead, thanks to Australia's terrible performances, Japan has run away with the group, and the second spot is still up for grabs.
Japan have already clinched a spot in the playoff, but it is hard to see a team of their talent finishing anywhere but in the top position.
Meanwhile, one would be hard-pressed to write off Australia. Even with their struggles, they sit one point out of the automatic qualifying spot with a match in hand. Expect the Socceroos to find their way through to Brazil in second.
As for the other three teams, it looks to be a dogfight to figure out the third-place finishers.
With all four of their matches with Japan and Australia already completed, Oman might be in a good position to get that spot.
The telling match will be in June at Jordan, but I'd back Oman to figure a way to a draw and into third.
Qualified: Japan, Australia
Eliminated: Jordan, Iraq
For the playoff round, the finished group would pit Iran against Oman.
While Oman have shown some good fight in this World Cup qualifying bid, only losing to Japan throughout, Iran have the talent to pull this tie off.
Expect the Iranians to work their way to the intercontinental playoff.
Intercontinental playoff: Iran
The qualification process for Africa started with 52 teams. After one round, the field has been pared down to 40 nations competing for five spots in the tournament.
Those 40 teams have been split into 10 groups of four, in which each team is to play the other three twice. As of now, each group is exactly halfway through that process.
In each of those groups, one group winner will advance to the next phase of the competition, while the other three will be eliminated.
From there, the 10 group winners will be paired together and face off against one another, with the winner going to the World Cup and the loser watching at home.
|Central African Republic||3||1||0||2||2||4||−2||3|
It's surprising to see Ethiopia with a lead over South Africa, but the Ethiopians have really earned their spot at the top.
A draw in South Africa and a strong home victory over the Central African Republic have them flying high.
South Africa's biggest hope of grabbing this group back will be in their away match at Ethiopia, but that might be a tough ask.
Still, one can see this one going either way, so I'll give the nod to the 2010 World Cup hosts.
Playoff: South Africa
Eliminated: Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Botswana
Tunisia has started this group strongly and developed a stranglehold that will be tough to loosen.
If one is looking for any hope of Tunisia falling apart, though, they do still have away fixtures with Sierra Leone and Equatorial Guinea.
Still, it's tough to imagine a scenario in which Tunisia doesn't advance.
Eliminated: Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde
Due to a shocking away draw at Morocco in which the they twice conceded leads, the Ivory Coast has still not wrapped up this group.
A match between the Ivory Coast and Tanzania in Tanzania in June will be the biggest match in this group.
Due to their talent, one must favor the Ivorians in that match.
Playoff: Ivory Coast
Eliminated: Tanzania, Morocco, Gambia
This is truly the blockbuster group of this stage of African World Cup qualifying, pitting the nation that finished deepest at the 2010 World Cup and the champions of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.
The group has certainly delivered in drama so far, but the turning point may have come through an administrative ruling.
After Sudan defeated Zambia 2-0, they were deemed to have fielded an ineligible player, and the result was reversed to a 3-0 Zambia victory.
That, coupled with Zambia's 1-0 victory over Ghana, has given them an advantage heading into the stretch run.
Still, the group will come down to the final match between Zambia and Ghana in Ghana.
I'd favor the Ghanaians to win that match and pull this one off.
Eliminated: Zambia, Lesotho, Sudan
They may not have been fancied before this group began, but Congo look ready to take this group easily.
Through half of this group stage, Congo has established quite a substantial lead.
With a 3-0 victory in Burkina Faso already under their belts, one would be hard-pressed to see another team making up enough points to overtake Congo.
It's not impossible, just very unlikely.
Eliminated: Burkina Faso, Niger, Gabon
The 2013 Africa Cup of Nations champions Nigeria seemed to have an easy group heading into this four-nation round robin.
However, they have made life difficult for themselves, drawing at Malawi and at home to Kenya, thus opening the door to the other three nations in the group.
The group may be very up for grabs, but it's still hard to see Nigeria failing to find a way to finish at the top.
Eliminated: Malawi, Namibia, Kenya
Egypt have done great so far in this group, winning every match and defeating Guinea away from home.
Expect Egypt to easily get through this group.
Eliminated: Guinea, Mozambique, Zimbabwe
Mali's 2-1 win over Algeria was great, but their 1-0 loss at Benin has kept this group very competitive.
The final group match between Algeria and Mali will probably be the decisive one in this group.
Out of the two, I'd expect Mali to use the positive experiences they've had in the past few Africa Cup of Nations to their advantage and find a way through to the playoff.
Eliminated: Algeria, Benin, Rwanda
Coming into this round of qualifying, this group had the potential to be an extremely interesting one.
Halfway through, it still could be, as Cameroon, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo all have great opportunities to win it.
The only disappointment has been Togo, who have had some trouble so far and may already be out of it.
The loss to Libya was tough for Cameroon, but I'd expect the returns of Samuel Eto'o and Benoit Assou-Ekotto to boost them through to the playoff round.
Eliminated: Libya, Congo DR, Togo
Over the past few years, Senegal has continually disappointed, despite their talent.
The team has only made one major tournament over the past four years, the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. There, they were eliminated from the group stage after losing every match.
Still, they should have the best chance of coming through this group.
However, with the door still open for any of the other three teams, don't put too much money on Senegal just yet.
Eliminated: Liberia, Angola, Uganda
As a reminder, the 10 nations I have coming through the groups are South Africa, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, Egypt, Mali, Cameroon and Senegal.
From there, these 10 teams will be grouped into pairs, and a two-legged tie will determine which nations go to the World Cup.
That creates some difficulty for these predictions, as a lot depends on the draw.
However, what I can do is predict the qualifiers based on form.
Senegal have continually disappointed on the biggest stages, so I can see them falling short of the World Cup one more time.
South Africa are having quite a bit of trouble in their group at the moment, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see them fail to qualify for Brazil.
Congo have done incredibly well so far in their group and already have a foot in the playoffs, but their relative lack of experience could hurt them here.
Cameroon are a shell of the team they used to be. While Samuel Eto'o will be looking for one last hurrah, he might not have enough to guide them to the World Cup.
Of the rest of the teams, I trust Tunisia the least, as the other teams have some incredible talent at their disposal.
Qualify: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Mali
Eliminated: South Africa, Tunisia, Congo, Cameroon, Senegal
The North American qualification process for the 2014 World Cup started with 35 teams. Through three rounds, it has been cut down to six.
Those six have been placed into one hexagonal group, where each team will play every other twice. From there, the top three qualify straight for the World Cup, the bottom two are eliminated and the fourth-placed finisher goes to a playoff with New Zealand.
Of the 10 matches every team will play, each has now played three.
Through three matches, the close nature of this hexagonal has been made abundantly clear.
Despite all of its talent, Mexico has drawn every match so far, including two scoreless draws at the Azteca to the USA and Jamaica.
Honduras started so well, defeating the USA and drawing Mexico, but fell as soon as they went away from home to Panama.
As it stands right now, this group could go in any direction, as it wouldn't be a huge surprise if any of the six qualified.
So who will pull it off?
It's hard to write off the perennial qualifiers just yet, as Mexico and the USA have the talent to quickly take over this group once more.
Honduras have proven their ability already, but they will hope to get some better results away from home over the last portion of this qualification process. Still, one can easily see them grabbing that third spot.
Finally, Panama has already shown their worth in going top of the group and could be headed to a playoff with New Zealand.
Qualified: Mexico, USA, Honduras
Intercontinental Playoff: Panama
Eliminated: Costa Rica, Jamaica
With Brazil hosting the World Cup this year, South America's qualification process pits just nine nations against each other.
Those nine have been put into one big group in which each team will play every other team twice, home and away.
After all the matches have been played, the top four will qualify automatically for the World Cup, the bottom four will be eliminated and the fifth-placed team will enter an intercontinental playoff with a team from Asia.
Of the 16 matches each team will play, every team has played either 10 or 11 so far.
The only thing that has really gone as expected in this group so far is Argentina's place at the top.
Other than that, some shocks and surprises have gone through the whole process.
Led by Antonio Valencia, Ecuador have been an unstoppable force at home and have used that to push their way to second. However, they have been quite mortal away from home, having yet to record a win on the road. With four of their six remaining matches away from home and one of their two home fixtures against Argentina, they are not yet clear at the top.
Colombia, meanwhile, have powered their way to the upper echelons of the group behind the fabulous play of Radamel Falcao.
On the other hand, Uruguay have been quite disappointing. The 2010 semifinalists and reigning Copa America champions currently sit in an elimination spot, desperately searching for form as they try to make it back to the cup.
Further, 2010 World Cup quarterfinalists and 2011 Copa America finalists Paraguay have been downright abysmal, as evidenced by their place in the cellar.
I would expect Argentina to hold onto their top spot easily, and Colombia to take second away from Ecuador.
From there, Chile and Ecuador will round out the automatic qualification spots, while the talent of Uruguay will get them to the intercontinental playoff over Venezuela.
Qualified: Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile
Intercontinental Playoff: Uruguay
Eliminated: Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay
The 53 European national teams have been separated into nine groups.
In each group, every team will play all of the others twice, home and away.
From there, the group winner will automatically qualify for the World Cup.
Meanwhile, of the nine second-place teams, one will be eliminated based on group performance, while the other eight will be drawn into pairs for playoffs that will determine the four other qualifiers.
As of right now, the process is just over halfway completed.
Coming into this qualification process, this looked like one of the most interesting groups in Europe.
However, Belgium and Croatia have quickly turned it into a two-horse race, running away from each of their opponents.
While Belgium hold a slight advantage at the moment, given their superior goal differential, they will still have to travel to Croatia for a key fixture in October.
I'll go out on a limb and say that the Croatians find a way in that one and qualify, relegating Belgium to the playoff.
Eliminated: Serbia, Wales, Macedonia, Scotland
In another interesting group, Italy look fairly safe atop the standings, while a dogfight is starting for the playoff spot.
Bulgaria has been game so far, refusing to be beaten through their first six matches.
On the other hand, the Czech Republic and Denmark, early favorites, have been inconsistent, as evidenced by Denmark's 3-1 loss to Italy and 3-0 victory over the Czech Republic.
Looking forward, the Czechs still have yet to play a match with Italy, while the Danes have two easy matches with Malta still left.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, have three road matches left of their four remaining fixtures.
Don't be surprised if the Danes come from behind to grab that second spot.
Eliminated: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Armenia, Malta
|Republic of Ireland||5||2||2||1||9||10||−1||8|
There are no surprises at the top of the group, as Germany have been amazing in qualifiers for the past several major tournaments.
However, the scrap for second is heating up greatly.
With a match in hand, Sweden looks to be in the driver seat at the moment, but Austria and Ireland are pushing them close and are even on points.
Sweden's match at Ireland in September will be huge, but I'd imagine that their four-goal comeback against Germany for a draw will be key to seeing them into the playoff.
Eliminated: Ireland, Austria, Kazakhstan, Faroe Islands
The Netherlands' perfect record at the moment has them all but qualified for Brazil.
However, the race for second in this group is really interesting.
After their strong performance in Euro 2012 qualifying, Estonia have been disappointing in this campaign.
Turkey have also been below par, but have a slight chance of turning that around with their final few matches.
Between Hungary and Romania, Hungary's remaining match at the Netherlands could be a killer.
I'd expect Romania to use this to their advantage and find a way through to the playoff.
Eliminated: Hungary, Turkey, Estonia, Andorra
In one of the weaker groups of this World Cup qualifying campaign, every nation seems to have a chance.
With 2010 World Cup qualifiers Slovenia at the bottom, this group is truly unpredictable.
It would be a catastrophe for a team as talented as Switzerland not to come through this group, but draws with Cyprus and Norway have opened the door for other nations to make a charge.
Still, I'd expect the Swiss to top the group in the end.
I have been very impressed by the play of Iceland, especially that of Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Norway could still make a good run, but I'd back Iceland right now.
Eliminated: Albania, Norway, Cyprus, Slovenia
While Russia have been very impressive in racking up a perfect record so far, the story of this group has been Portugal's inconsistent play, especially at the back.
The Portuguese have been a force in major tournaments for the past decade, but are really pushing it close at this point and could well miss out on Brazil if they don't improve soon.
Their main rivals for second, Israel, have done very well, even coming close to knocking off the Portuguese in a qualifier last month.
While Russia will probably have the top spot with ease, it's hard to write off Portugal, just because of the awesome talent they have at their disposal.
Eliminated: Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||5||4||1||0||18||3||+15||13|
Bosnia and Herzegovina have been in some great form over the first half of this qualifying group, winning every match besides a scoreless draw at Greece.
While the Greeks have consistently seemed to find a way these past several years, the fact that they have played both matches with Bosnia has taken their fate out of their own hands.
As it doesn't seem like Bosnia and Herzegovina will drop many points from here on in, it might be wise for Greece to watch out below them, as a talented Slovakia side look to nick the playoff spot from them.
However, I'd still favor the Greeks to hold on to their second position.
Qualified: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Eliminated: Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Liechtenstein
Over the past few years, Montenegro have been a thorn in England's side in qualifying fixtures.
In three qualification battles from Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, England and Montenegro have drawn every time.
England will get one more chance in October, as the Three Lions may need a win in that one to qualify directly for the World Cup.
Meanwhile, the talented sides of Poland and the Ukraine are each lurking right below England, poised to make a run of their own and push this group right to the end.
This might be the most interesting group heading into the stretch run, but I expect England to snatch it at the end and push Montenegro down to a playoff.
However, don't be surprised if any of the top four nations end up winning it.
Eliminated: Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, San Marino
Spain's draw with Finland last month opened the door for France to take control of this group, but the Spanish promptly closed that door with a victory in Paris.
While Spain has shown some weakness over the past few months, it's hard to imagine them slipping up in these final three matches.
This looks like a settled group.
Eliminated: Georgia, Belarus, Finland
As a refresher, I have Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Iceland, Portugal, Greece, Montenegro and France all finishing as runners-up in their respective groups.
Now, the method for deciding the final four qualifiers makes predictions quite difficult, as one of these nine would be eliminated before the playoffs, and the others would face a draw to determine their matchups.
Hence, I will pick from these four based upon talent and form.
Iceland and Romania will do very well to get to this stage of qualifying, but both lack the experience to be able to pull off a two-legged tie.
Meanwhile, Montenegro's place in a playoff will be a disappointment for them, as they will have squandered a lead in their group to England. Hence, just as they did in Euro 2012 qualifying, they will exit the proceedings at this stage.
Denmark have a fair bit of talent and could well find a way through this stage, but I can't see them getting through over many of the remaining five others.
Finally, while Greece has done a wondrous job of scraping through qualifying over the past decade, a playoff with one of these other top teams would be a step too far for them.
That leaves the talented Belgians, the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Swedes, the Cristiano Ronaldo-driven Portugese, and the reborn French booking their spots in Brazil.
Qualified: Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, France
Eliminated: Iceland, Romania, Montenegro, Denmark, Greece
In the first intercontinental qualifier, I have Asia's fifth-place finisher Iran coming up against South America's fifth-place finisher Uruguay.
While Iran have some good talent and the potential to pull this off, Uruguay seem to come alive in elimination matches.
Expect Luis Suarez to handle the Iranians and help his Asian foes bite the dust.
For the second, I have the North American fourth-placed Panama taking on the Oceanic qualifiers New Zealand.
While New Zealand had quite an impressive 2010 World Cup campaign, they haven't been quite the same over the last few months, especially in losing to New Caledonia in the OFC Nations Cup semifinals.
Expect Panama to get the last place in Brazil.
So here are my 32 qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil:
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Let me know in the comments below!