Media focus may currently be on the opening fixtures of Europe’s major leagues, but the recent swathe of international friendlies have reminded everyone of the looming prospect of the 2014 World Cup.
This article ranks the six favourites for next summer’s tournament as they currently stand. Doubtless, the fates and fortunes of a whole crop of players over the coming months will alter this order, but don’t be surprised to see all of these names lurking around in the business-end of competition in Brazil.
The teams are ranked based on the odds provided by Ladbrokes, the UK’s largest betting company and the world’s largest bookmaker. I have also included reference to the FIFA World Rankings and national placements courtesy of my colleague Frank Wagner and his fascinating—if flawed—national team metric.
Read on and comment below, letting the team know how you would rank the key contenders ahead of next summer.
FIFA Ranking: 9
Placement in Frank Wagner’s Power Rankings: 3
State of Qualifying: Confirmed as hosts.
Pedigree: The best of the best. The most successful nation in the competition’s history, they have five titles—the most recent coming when they defeated Germany in the final in 2002.
Star Man: Some may bemoan the saturation of Neymar da Silva Santos at the moment, but Barcelona’s new man is riding a wave—one that he hopes will continue to next summer.
£53 million is an awfully hefty fee, particularly for a player who has no experience with Europe’s major leagues. Neymar’s performances at the Confederations Cup, however, seemed to indicate that the prodigy is ready to take the mantle for club and country.
FIFA Ranking: 4
Placement in Frank Wagner’s Power Rankings: 5
State of Qualifying: Top of the CONMEBOL tree with three games to go, it would take an incredible collapse for Argentina to slip out of the top four.
Pedigree: Not too shabby, have won two World Cups—in 1978 and 1986. Unfortunately, they boast only a 50% success rate in World Cup finals, having been bested by Uruguay in 1930 and by Germany in 1990.
Star Man: Lionel Messi. The greatest player of his generation, if not of all-time—will look to end the Pélé or Maradona debate by guiding Argentina to victory on enemy soil next summer.
FIFA Ranking: 2
Placement in Frank Wagner’s Power Rankings: 2
State of Qualifying: Lead Austria by five points in UEFA Qualifying Group C. They have tricky games to come with Sweden, Ireland and the Austrians, but will be confident of advancing.
Pedigree: Three World Cups, two as West Germany (in 1954 and 1974) as well as victory as a unified nation in 1990. Defeated finalists on four occasions.
Star Man: Any number to choose from. Bastian Schweinsteiger, the team’s veteran at 29, is the side’s metronome and their point of reference.
I expect Toni Kroos—following another year of development at Bayern Munich, now under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola—could make a massive impact on the world’s greatest stage.
FIFA Ranking: 1
Placement in Frank Wagner’s Power Rankings: 1
State of Qualifying: I would personally prefer if the holders qualified automatically for the World Cup, but Spain should make it even though their qualifying group includes the ominous prospect of France. They currently lead their Gallic counterpoints by one point, with three more games to play.
Pedigree: Decades of underachievement and failure were all but written off by a stunning period of unprecedented success. The current crop won the World Cup in 2010, a triumph sandwiched between two European Championship victories.
Star Man: The heroes of years past, Carles Puyol, Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are each in various states of disrepair. While Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are still elite defenders, some have suggested that relative rookie, Jordi Alba, is the real difference-maker. His speed, width and ingenuity add a dimension to the side that has papered over the cracks in recent years. He will be expected to excel in Brazil.
FIFA Ranking: 5
Placement in Frank Wagner’s Power Rankings: 4
State of Qualifying: Storming away with UEFA Group D. Seven points ahead of second-placed Hungary, September’s fixtures against Andorra and Estonia could seal progression.
Pedigree: Often the bridesmaid, never the bride. The Netherlands hold the unenviable honour of making three finals, without ever having made it over the finishing line. In 1974, inspired by Johan Cruyff and driven by Total Football, they were pipped by Germany. A squad containing familiar faces fell short against Argentina four years later.
Four years ago, an un-fancied Dutch side bullied their way to the final and took a special Spanish team to extra time, only to be unstuck by Andrés Iniesta.
Star Man: The underperforming generation of a decade ago will all be in their thirties by the time the World Cup reaches its latter stages next summer. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart have all achieved great things with their clubs, but have too-often bombed spectacularly in national colours.
Many are anticipating that Roma’s midfield man Kevin Strootman will come of age and inspire the tattered veterans to great things in Brazil.
FIFA Ranking: 6
Placement in Frank Wagner’s Power Rankings: 7
State of Qualifying: Sitting pretty in Group B, Italy are on course for Brazil and currently lead Bulgaria by four points. The contest between the two on September 6 will be watched avidly and may well influence the final outcome of the group.
Pedigree: Second only to Brazil in terms of pedigree. Italy have won four titles in three different decades; the 30s, the 80s and then recently in 2006. They also appeared in the final in 1970 and 1994, where only the lottery of penalties separated them from eventual-champions, Brazil.
Star Man: In a squad laced with excellent talents and players plying their trade at the top end of European competition, it is still Andrea Pirlo that stands out. He remains the team’s lynchpin and their tactical heartbeat.
The Juventus man will be 35 by the time the World Cup rolls around, but, injury permitting, will certainly be seeking the perfect swansong to a wonderful career.