The 2014 FIFA World Cup remains about a year away, which means that any attempt to predict a best XI for the event will be little more than an exercise in speculation.
In that case, get ready to speculate.
Today at B/R we're predicting a World Cup 2014 best XI, based on past performance, potential for future greatness and expected team performance next summer in Brazil.
Flip through the list then let us know what you think in the comments below.
Choices, choices. As we'll see throughout this XI, there will be plenty of choices at every position.
That's especially true at goalkeeper, where multiple contenders feature world-class players.
Defending champions Spain have Iker Casillas. Italy have Gianluigi Buffon. The Czech Republic, though not necessarily contenders for the title, have one of the world's best in Petr Cech.
But for us it's Manuel Neuer, the No. 1 for both Germany and Bayern Munich. Neuer proved his worth in the Champions League final last month, pulling off a highlight reel's worth of saves along with Borussia Dortmund's Roman Weidenfeller.
In 2011, he went more than 1,000 minutes without conceding a goal in the Bundesliga. And at 27, he's already among the world's best with many years ahead of him.
Germany, currently ranked No. 2 in the world by FIFA, should be among the favorites in Brazil. With Neuer in goal, Die Mannschaft have a solid foundation for a potential run at glory.
We'll continue with the Bayern/Germany theme at right-back, where Philipp Lahm has been a stalwart for what seems like eons. At 29, Lahm has established himself as one of the finest right-backs in the world and, as captain, a key component of both Bayern and Germany.
Known as the Magic Dwarf, the diminutive Lahm plays a role in both the defense and attack for club and country. With Bayern this past season he racked up 11 assists from his full-back position while completing nearly 90 percent of his passes, per WhoScored.
With experience, craftiness and even a bit of goalscoring threat, Lahm will be a valuable player for Germany next summer.
On the other side, we've opted for Jordi Alba, who took over as Spain's left-back at Euro 2012 and thrived in the role as Vicente Del Bosque's team retained its European title. Alba, 24, joined Barcelona last summer and settled in immediately, helping Barca regain the La Liga crown.
Per BBC Sport: "Alba made more accurate passes than any other defender in La Liga (1,897), as well as providing five assists, a figure only two other defenders could better in 2012-13."
Other choices at full-back include—but are not limited to—Juanfran, who helped Atletico Madrid maintain La Liga's best defense this past season but is behind Alvaro Arbeloa in the Spain national team; and Leighton Baines, whose set-piece threat could be a major weapon for England.
Center-back is another position that features loads of competition. Their number includes regulars like Spain's Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, Germany's Mats Hummels and Italy's Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. Then there are longer shots like France's Laurent Koscielny and youngster Iñigo Martinez, who stood out for Real Sociedad this past season but has yet to make his senior debut with Spain.
Most of those guys are elite players who could slot into any best XI, but we'll opt for Brazil's Thiago Silva and Belgium's Jan Vertonghen.
Silva, 28, is a big, strong center-back who helped Paris Saint-Germain win the French Ligue 1 title this past season. He'll be in his prime and on home soil next summer, which could be a recipe for a memorable performance.
Vertonghen, 26, impressed in his first season with Tottenham Hotspur in England, contributing both defensively and offensively in a libero-esque role. Fully capable in the middle and on the left, he is one of the brightest talents on Belgium's star-studded team.
Choices abound once again in the holding midfield, which tends to be a key position for world-class teams. And speaking of world-class teams, it's hard to look past Spain and Germany, or their impressive holding midfielders.
For Spain, it's Barcelona's Sergio Busquets, who sits deep in the formation for both squads, protecting the back four and linking the defense with the offense as well as anyone in the world. Still just 24, Busquets has loads of experience with Spain as a World Cup and European Championship winner.
Meanwhile, Bastian Schweinsteiger is the engine that makes Germany and Bayern Munich go. Writing for the Guardian, Michael Cox said of Schweinsteiger and his Bayern teammate Javi Martinez: "They are superb all-rounders – strong but technically proficient, capable of outfighting opponents as well as outpassing them."
Those traits in Schweinsteiger have helped Bayern and Germany become elite teams, and while Martinez also deserves credit, he is a backup for Spain. Schweinsteiger is key for Germany, and he'll be crucial to their run next summer.
Not that these two are the only crucial holding midfielders in international football. The list is long and includes usual suspects like Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric, as well as less established talents like Ilkay Gundogan and Morgan Schneiderlin (who still needs a call-up to France's senior side).
Cristiano Ronaldo goes here, and there should be no argument about it. The Portuguese superstar is coming off another superb campaign with Real Madrid (34 league goals) and will be in his prime next summer.
Ronaldo slots into his wide forward role on the left, but who joins him in our attacking midfield? Again, there are many, many choices.
Juan Mata turned in a sparkling campaign for Chelsea in England, but he is not a first-choice player in Spain's national team. Xavi has been a star for Spain and Barcelona for a decade, but he will be 34 next summer and perhaps on the decline.
Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos are excellent playmakers for both Germany and Bayern Munich. Eden Hazard is a rising star for Belgium. Same for Brazil's Neymar and Spain's Isco—and the list goes on.
With all those choices in mind, we're opting for Andres Iniesta in the middle and Mario Gotze on the right. Admittedly, this amounts to an attempt to shoehorn Gotze, who's at his best in the middle, into the squad. But he's capable of playing on the right, and his talent is too much to ignore.
Fans of Brazil will point to Neymar (and perhaps Hulk) as alternatives, but I think Germany's Gotze is more polished at this point of his career. Plus, this summer he's set to join Bayern Munich, where he'll learn under Pep Guardiola next season.
Then there's Iniesta, Spain's best player at Euro 2012 and unquestionably a world-class playmaker. Iniesta can play on the left, but we'll opt for him in the middle, where he can put to work the amazing passing ability and game-vision that produced 16 assists in La Liga this season (per WhoScored).
Iniesta will be 30 next summer and thus perhaps at the peak of his powers. But it's hard to imagine him performing much better than he did at Euro 2012.
Again, there can be no argument here.
Sure, Lionel Messi is a "false nine" for Barcelona, and he went scoreless at the last World Cup with Argentina.
Messi, 25, is simply the best player in the world. He scored 46 goals this season in La Liga, the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues, and he bagged a world-record 91 goals in all competitions in 2012. Predicting a World Cup best XI without him would be both arrogant and foolish.
Or did you want to bet against La Pulga?
Other players fit the center-forward description better—for instance Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani or Robert Lewandowski. And still others, like Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, fit into the world-class category.
But none is as great as Messi, and if he is on top of his game next summer, there might be no stopping him.
Here is the full team, in a 4-2-3-1 formation:
Neuer; Lahm, Thiago Silva, Vertonghen, Alba; Schweinsteiger, Busquets; Ronaldo, Iniesta, Gotze; Messi.
Who would make your team? Who did we miss? Let us know in the comments.