The qualifying rounds for the FIFA World Cup 2014 are drawing closer to their conclusions, with most of the spots to be wrapped up later this year. For a lucky group of 736 players—32 national teams, 23 men per squad—they will get the chance to perform on the global scale, but the inevitable hard-luck stories will also be prevalent.
For many, many more players, they will never get the chance to go to a World Cup, with their nations simply not progressive enough in their respective qualifying zones to hope to earn a place. Gareth Bale, for example, was excluded from this list because Wales don't have a shot of qualifying.
But for some, the agony is that they are close, perhaps have even been to the final previously—but will this time miss out by the narrowest of margins.
The World Cup is a wonderful showpiece to witness a collection of stars vying for one trophy outright, but here are the 10 best players in the world who are in danger of not making the finals, for their teams currently lie outside the automatic qualifying positions in their respective groups.
We start off with our poster boy from the front page, and one of the most outrageously talented and enigmatic figures in world football today.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the first-choice Sweden and Paris Saint-Germain forward, but his nation are currently lying in third place in their UEFA Group, which is not good enough for a playoff spot. Only level on points with Austria, Sweden have plenty to do to make sure they make the finals, though having a game in hand could give them an edge going forward if they can maintain form.
Sweden have not been beaten yet in the qualifiers, but they need to turn draws into wins over the second half of the campaign.
Over into the CONCACAF region and we find another top forward who, as things stand, will be missing out on the World Cup finals.
Javier Hernandez represents Mexico, but he has been unable to so far fire them to victory in the Hexagonal stage of qualifying. Mexico have drawn all three matches they have played and are in fifth place at the midway stage.
Only the top three automatically qualify for the finals, with fourth place leading to a playoff match. Mexico must improve to attain one of those spots or else face the anguish of another four-year wait.
Bouncing back to UEFA and one of the players who will be a key component in the UEFA Champions League final battle, here's Borussia Dortmund central defender Neven Subotic.
Subotic is also a mainstay on the Serbian national team, clocking up 33 caps to date for them, but that talented group of players have only managed to reach third place in their Group A standings. Serbia, in fact, are almost certain to miss out on the World Cup with Belgium and Croatia flying high above them.
Serbia need to win all of their remaining games and hope for a complete collapse from one of those two to have a hope of qualifying for the World Cup.
Now off to Africa, where one of the top players plying his club trade in Europe is in danger of watching his nation fail to reach even the final qualifying stage.
Kwadwo Asamoah is a big part of the Serie A-winning Juventus side, and is similarly important to his nation Ghana. However, with just the top team from each mini-group progressing to the final playoff stage in the CAF qualifying zone, Ghana are struggling to have even the chance of making the World Cup.
They are currently second, behind Zambia, with three matches to play. Ghana must turn around the group and finish top to go through to the playoff stage, where they will then need to win a two-legged affair to reach the finals.
Halfway through our list is one of the top two players on the planet by common consent: Cristiano Ronaldo, of Real Madrid and Portugal.
The top spot is almost already out of reach for the Portuguese, with Russia atop the group and with two matches in hand. In aiming for a playoff spot and second place, Portugal are even struggling there, with Israel currently placed ahead of them.
Ronaldo and Co. still have time to turn things around, but greater consistency will be required and the clash between Portugal and Israel in October could be the determining factor.
Staying in Europe now and Group B in the UEFA zone, Czech Republic are outside of the playoff and automatic qualification places.
Goalkeeper Petr Cech is established as one of the best in the world in his position, and is established as first choice with almost a full century of caps for his nation, but his country have won just two of their five games to date in the group and are in third place.
Czech Republic must win their game in hand over second-place Bulgaria to pull themselves back into the top two spots.
A two-in-one slide now with a pair of the most feared forwards on the planet, both in danger of missing out on a World Cup appearance in 2014.
Uruguay strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have been finding the back of the net, scoring 10 goals in qualifying between them, and scoring 65 between them at club level this season, but their nation has been unable to keep goals out at the other end of the pitch, shipping in 21 in just 11 games.
That has contributed to Uruguay lying in sixth place in the long-running CONMEBOL league standings, with only the top four automatically qualifying and fifth place needing a playoff to qualify.
Back to Europe and another striker, with Robert Lewandowski having to watch his country Poland failing to have a significant enough impact in UEFA Group H.
The Poles are third in the group with a game in hand, but even a victory in that match would not be enough to see them pull level with either of the top two countries, England and Montenegro. A strong finish will be required from Poland if they are to have a chance of reaching the World Cup in 2014.
Like his Dortmund teammate Subotic from earlier in the list, Lewandowski will be hoping to make a telling impact at club level in the Champions League final later this month.
We round off our list with Slovakian playmaker Marek Hamsik, who has been unable to lead his country into the top two in UEFA Group G to date.
Slovakia are third, two points behind Greece who occupy the playoff spot. There is still time to turn things around if they can put together a consistent run of form and in particular beat Greece when the two meet in October, but of more immediate concern might be the double-header against group leaders Bosnia, who they will face twice in four days in September.
Good results in those games could turn the group on its head, but negative ones could end any hopes the Napoli playmaker has of reaching the 2014 World Cup.