Back where it belongs: England has long claimed to be the home of football, but the Brazilians are responsible for transforming it from a sport into an art.
There have been some bizarre entrants in the World Cup over the years, with a personal favourite being North Korea in South Africa and their passionate fans.
It is unlikely that anything quite so far-fetched will happen this time around, but there are some teams who have been punching above their weight class so far in the qualifying groups.
This is a loose prediction of which teams could end up there; some who should really walk with ease into football's biggest party but haven't hit their form yet, and others who are just surprising everybody.
Group standings, results and games to be played are sourced from the official FIFA website.
Mexico have struggled to get into their rhythm in the campaign so far.
El Tri have been dire. Just dire. Their most recent game against Panama was so devoid of football and so saturated with mistakes and fouls that it’s getting harder and harder to see them getting anywhere near Brazil. Oh, and their rivals have a game in hand.
But they have five games left to play, and even if they slip up again, there will still be time to put things right. Panama, Honduras and Jamaica simply do not have the quality to keep up with the rest of the pack until the end.
That puts the onus on Mexico to not collapse, but even if they fall into the playoff they will still be a good bet to qualify. The situation appears to be not that Mexico are bad, because they’re not; rather, it’s that they haven’t hit their stride yet.
A change of tactics would help, as their play has been too reliant on the wings, and if they can work out how to get the ball to Javier Hernandez more often he will no doubt capitalise. Defensively they are sound—only two goals conceded in five matches so far, so the focus has to be on refining the attack.
However, if things haven’t improved in the next two matches, depending on the other results, this column may have to be revised.
Montenegro have managed to hold England off the top spot but will have to recover from the 4-0 thrashing by Ukraine.
It was a close toss-up between this lot and Ukraine over who would squeeze themselves in, and the Montenegrins just about edged it.
They have never played in a World Cup proper as Montenegro; the national team of “Montenegro” was only formed after the 2006 World Cup, which featured a combination of newly created states as “Serbia and Montenegro.”
For a nation that didn’t exist the last time Wayne Rooney had a full head of (his own) hair, they have made leaps and bounds. Their gallop through Group H has taken everyone by surprise, and although they are recovering from a 4-0 mauling at the hands of Ukraine, being underestimated by the opposition has worked so far.
That 4-0 defeat is what made the choice between them and Ukraine so close. But, as Ukraine have failed to impress with either their results or goal difference—they were on plus two before the other night—and the Ukraine game looked more of an off-day than the end of the honeymoon, Montenegro still look the more likely.
It’s going to be a tough slog between the seven-year-old nation and Mykhaylo Fomenko’s Ukraine, while Poland will be gnawing at their heels the whole way. But keep playing like they have been, and Montenegro could very well find themselves at their first World Cup.
Robbie Keane during his recent hat-trick against the Faroe Islands.
After their bitterly poor showing at Euro 2012, some may have thought it better that the ROI take a few years off to regroup. To the contrary, they are still well in with chance of joining group leaders Germany in Brazil next year, sitting in third place and level on points with Austria, who are second.
They still have a difficult game away to Germany left to play, who by then will probably have secured their ticket, but it’s the games before and after that count.
If Ireland can beat Sweden and Austria in their next two games then they will be on their way, with a probable defeat by Germany and what should be a routine victory over Kazakhstan to follow.
Austria have been a surprise package, but Ireland boast better individuals, as well as a very experienced manager in Giovanni Trapattoni, and should be able to steal second place barring Sweden having a high-scoring game against the Faroe Islands.
But the Irish have two excellent motivations: the schooling by Spain that nailed the coffin shut in their final game of Euro 2012; and more importantly, that superb basketball move as exhibited by one Thierry Henry that kept them out of South Africa two years ago. As long as those incidents are not forgotten, they should be able to navigate the playoffs on sheer desire.
Rooney has been unsettled recently regarding his club, but that should not be allowed to affect his international performances.
We shouldn’t really have to include a team with such individual talents in the "stealers" list, but it seems as though stellar individuals not being able to gel as a team pretty much sums England up.
We’re not going to sit here and discuss what can be done about it—that’s the FA’s problem—but we can make bold predictions about how it will turn out.
England are notorious for giving their supporters a near by-pass before just scraping through—remember David Beckham’s free kick against Greece in 2002? But it’s not just leaving the goals until the last minute this time around; rather, it looks as though leaving top form until the last minute has become the fashion. Though, hasn’t that always been the case?
England should be one of the teams that breezes through the qualifiers, like Germany and Belgium have done so well recently. They haven’t done that, but the last time they failed to qualify for the World Cup was USA 1994—that won’t happen again, at least not this time around.
There are too many talented players and Roy Hodgson is too experienced to let that happen, but he will have to keep an eye on Montenegro. They sit with 14 points above England and Ukraine, who are on 12 and 11 respectively, albeit with an extra game already played.
That said, it won’t be easy, and while England will most likely qualify, it may be through the playoffs, but they can deal with that. What David Luiz said the other day was pretty much the truth, but he made the wrong point. He told The Sun that England don’t have the right mentality to win tournaments, which is true, but what is more accurate is that let alone winning, England rarely deserve to even be there.
Yet somehow they always are.
Uruguay's star players need to step it up if they are to reach Brazil.
Uruguay were the dark horses in South Africa, fighting their way right up to the quarter-final, and then somehow getting past that because of the goalkeeping skills of Luis Suarez. If there’s one thing from that tournament that sticks in the mind, it’s the way that when Asamoah Gyan missed that penalty, Suarez danced around like he had done something to be proud of.
Anyway, Uruguay currently sit outside the qualification places but are only three points off fifth-placed Venezuela with a game in hand, though Peru are sat between them holding an extra point. However, the next two games will be played against those sides, and as long as Suarez can replicate some of his Liverpool form and the rest of the side pull together, they should be able to win both those ties and jump to fifth.
However, no one is betting on them getting any higher than that.
The prediction that they will qualify is based on that they will place fifth, and then whoever they meet from Asia really should not pose much of a problem. Both the Korea Republic and Japan will most likely qualify automatically, which leaves Iran, Oman, Australia and a few other teams of that ilk to be beaten in the playoff—not too much to ask of a side that boasts Suarez and Edinson Cavani in attack.
And that is the insurance policy: if Suarez is distracted by issues in England, then at least they have Cavani. As for Cavani, if he can’t step up to the mark, it’s difficult to see how he can justify that £53 million release clause.