Ranking the 25 Best Nations Likely to Be at the 2014 World Cup
The 2014 FIFA World Cup is still a few months away, but that can't prevent us from looking ahead at the best teams with the biggest opportunity to be crowned the best football nation in the world.
Rather than simply discussing the obvious contenders such as Brazil and Spain, let's take a look at the 25 best nations that either have already qualified or should soon qualify for world football's biggest event.
Nations will be ranked from 25 to 1 in order of chances of winning the World Cup. Teams who have not yet officially qualified but still have a chance at earning a spot will be considered, but teams with no chance of qualification are not considered (for obvious reasons).
I will also include each team's Soccer Power Index ranking, courtesy of ESPN.com, to compare my rankings to theirs and start the debate that will rage on until one team emerges victorious in the summer of 2014.
Without any further introduction, let's get started with the 25th best team heading into next year's World Cup.
SPI Ranking: 58
Tim Cahill may not be the world-class creative midfield that he once was, but he's still capable of serious moments of brilliance, as seen in the video above.
The Australians lack in star power, but they make up for it in veteran leadership from Cahill and Luke Wilkshire.
There's nothing special about this side, but they're sound defensively and have poised players who will handle the spotlight well.
Don't expect a run to the final from the Australians, but don't be surprised if they steal a few points in the group stages from unsuspecting favored opponents.
24. Costa Rica
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SPI Ranking: 21
The Costa Ricans finished right behind the first-placed Americans in CONCACAF qualifiers, ahead of the more established and seemingly more talented Mexican side.
So how did this small nation rise to the top of the North American football landscape?
Key victories over the United States and Mexico bolstered their record on their way to qualification, led by strikers Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell and Celso Borges.
The Costa Ricans aren't likely to win the World Cup, but they have the talent and goal-scoring ability to make some noise and earn even more respect on the international stage.
SPI Ranking: 20
Switzerland handled one of the easier groups in UEFA qualifying in order to secure their place at the World Cup, but they did so in undefeated fashion.
Led by a trio of Napoli midfielders in Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili, the Swiss have plenty of talented players who are stars for their club sides. But it may be Stephan Lichtsteiner who impresses the most.
The veteran right-back can literally do it all, from attacking to defending, and will be key for Swiss success at the 2014 World Cup.
But the Swiss weren't tested by the qualification group and don't appear to have any truly special players who will help them stand out from the crowd in Brazil.
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SPI Ranking: 16
The Russians no longer have many star players who play away from their home country, meaning most fans don't get a chance to see these players on a weekly basis.
But they still have world-class players such as Igor Akinfeev and Alaz Dzagoev who will lead the way next summer.
Russia finished ahead of Portugal in qualifying by a single point after splitting their matchups in Group F play in UEFA World Cup Qualifying.
But a loss to Northern Ireland during qualifications calls into question the legitimacy of Russia over the course of an entire tournament.
There's no denying that there are some incredible footballers for this nation who could surprise many viewers of next summer's World Cup.
21. South Korea
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SPI Ranking: 36
Park Chu-Young may not have caught on after his transfer for Arsenal, but he's still among the brightest stars for his national team.
That said, if he is unable to secure a transfer away from Arsenal and get playing time before the World Cup, his status on the team will be in jeopardy, according to Metro.
There are other talented players for South Korea, including a trio of midfielders with Premier League experience in Ki Sung-Yueng, Lee Chung-Yong and Kim Bo-Kyung. But will that be enough to make a run into the knockout stages in Brazil?
The trip to South America will likely be unkind to visiting Asian teams, as AFC teams have not won a knockout round game since 2002 when Japan and South Korea hosted the World Cup.
So South Korea may make some noise, but don't expect a championship run from any of the Asian nations making the trip to Brazil.
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SPI Ranking: 38
Japan finished ahead of the aforementioned Australians in AFC qualifying, that's thanks to the goal-scoring efforts of Shinji Okazaki.
At the age of 27, Okazaki is the fourth-highest scorer in Japanese history and is emerging as a star alongside fellow Japanese household names such as Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda.
The Japanese have always been known as a technical team who flourish off set-pieces, and they'll likely catch teams off-guard with their brilliance at this upcoming World Cup.
They certainly have more talent than fellow Asian contenders South Korea, but the fact remains that Asian teams don't have a great history of success in recent World Cup games outside of their homelands.
Japan stand a better chance than South Korea, but both nations will struggle to advance deep into the competition.
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SPI Ranking: 25
Ghana has yet to qualify officially for the World Cup, but a 6-1 aggregate lead over Egypt means their place in the tournament is almost secure.
Andre Ayew and Jordan Ayew are among the many talented attacking options for Ghana, who dominated their qualifying group before racing past Egypt in the first leg of their playoff.
The defense will be the most susceptible element of the Ghanaian team and will ultimately hold them back from serious contention in the knockout stages.
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SPI Ranking: 27
The Greeks have Romania standing between them and a spot in the World Cup, but should they emerge victorious, they'll bring a wealth of experience and defensive prowess to Brazil.
No one will claim that watching a match featuring Greece is exciting, as they prefer a tight defense and lack creative attacking qualities.
Led by Sokratis Papastathopoulos, the back line for this side will be very hard to breach for even the best attacking teams in the world.
Ever since their surprise performance at the 2004 European Championships, there has been a great deal of respect given to the Greeks and their style of play. But they lack the flair going forward to overcome the many talented teams they'll face in Brazil.
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SPI Ranking: 19
Similar to Greece, Portugal do not have qualification secured at the moment.
But unlike the Greeks, Portugal have some fantastic attacking players who are capable of making noise on the big stage in Brazil.
Those same attacking players do tend, however, to disappear in big moments, which is why Portugal rank so low on this list. Everyone knows how amazing Cristiano Ronaldo is, and his teammates such as Nani and Fabio Coentrao have incredible skills as well.
But they don't always put them on display.
Portugal drew twice with Israel and once with Northern Ireland in the build-up to the World Cup. These are the inconsistent results that will likely resurface during the tournament and send the Portuguese to an early defeat.
But if they can put together consistent performances, they have a chance to make a run at a title. They're the first team in these rankings with a legitimate shot at winning the tournament and that's because of the incredible talents they have on their side.
16. Ivory Coast
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SPI Ranking: 17
The Ivory Coast may not seem like they should be a favorite for the World Cup, but they have a few incredible talents who may put the team on their back and drag them towards the final.
The experienced Didier Drogba, the young Wilfried Bony and the versatile Yaya Toure will all play a part in the Ivorian effort in next summer's tournament.
The side has not yet qualified, needing to finish a two-leg tie with Senegal first. But should they maintain their 3-1 advantage in that fixture, they'll be ready to take on the world in Brazil next summer.
15. United States
SPI Ranking: 15
The United States have taken over CONCACAF from Mexico and qualified for the World Cup as North America's best shot at a title.
And with promising young stars such as Aron Johannsson taking their place in the side alongside veterans such as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, there is hope that the Americans can improve upon their round-of-16 knockout in the 2010 World Cup.
But as Jimmy Conrad mentions in the video above (about 1:00 into the video), the USMNT are prone to slow starts that bury hope of a victory before the team has a chance to settle into the game.
The Americans lack a truly world-class player, but they have a solid roster and an outside chance at making their way deep into the tournament next summer in Brazil.
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SPI Ranking: 12
The South American teams in next year's World Cup will all receive a boost from playing on friendly soil in Brazil. But that's not the only reason why Ecuador and the other South American teams are ranked so high on this list.
There are so many talented players coming from CONMEBOL in recent years and Ecuador is no exception.
Manchester United's Antonio Valencia might be the biggest name on the squad, but keep an eye on forward Felipe Caicedo as well.
Ecuador are not the strongest team from South America, but they managed an impressive run through qualifying that secured a spot in the World Cup ahead of a seemingly better Uruguay side. So don't count out Ecuador, even if they seem to lack star power.
13. Bosnia and Herzegovina
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SPI Ranking: 14
Playing in a qualifying group that includes Greece and still managing to score 30 goals in 10 games is reason to take notice of just how good this Bosnian team can be.
Most football fans know about Edin Dzeko, the star striker for Manchester City. But the same level of talent can be found on every line for Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic and Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
This team is flying under the radar at the moment, but don't sleep on them next summer.
There are so many talented players on this squad that they'll be a tough team to knock out of the tournament for any of the top national teams in the world.
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SPI Ranking: 13
An undefeated triumph over their qualifying group has prepared the Italians for another chance at World Cup glory.
The four-time champions may not have their best team, but they have enough talent to put up a fight in the knockout rounds.
The list of incredible veteran players for Italy is jaw-dropping. Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini will be valuable to rising stars such as Mario Balotelli and Marco Verratti.
The defense will be strong and the attacking presence is there. So what will hold this Italian team back?
Italy has not defeated a premier team since the semi-finals of the 2012 European Championships, when they defeated Germany to advance to the final.
Since then, they have fallen short against England, France, Brazil and Agentina, and have drawn against the Netherlands.
They seem capable of defeating lesser teams, but I question their ability to defeat an elite side.
SPI Ranking: 10
Can Joe Hart regain his form seen in the video above by next summer and provide the Three Lions with the presence in goal they need to win the World Cup?
Hart is one of the few question marks on an otherwise loaded England roster, including rising stars Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge. Experienced players such as Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard round out an excellent, balanced roster that's ready to contend for a title.
But there are no elite players for England, just a batch of very good players. That means there must be no easily exploited weaknesses in the side, which is what Hart has been as of late.
If Hart can handle his duties between the sticks, England have the sort of balanced team that can work their way deep into the tournament.
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SPI Ranking: 5
The SPI rankings love Chile, who finished third in CONMEBOL qualifying and have ties with Brazil and Spain on their record in recent months.
And there are plenty of reasons to believe in Chile. Alexis Sanchez is a key member of Barcelona's incredible attack, and Arturo Vidal helps boss the midfield for Juventus.
Chile have plenty of experienced players with a good amount of caps that aren't too old to show improvement and potential. That's a good sign looking ahead to 2014, when most of their key players will still be in their prime.
They don't have incredible players at every position, but they do have some special talents who can lift the team into the late stages of the World Cup tournament.
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SPI Ranking: 7
France have yet to qualify officially for the World Cup, but to be fair to them, they faced a tough task with Spain sitting atop their group.
If they can overcome Ukraine, they'll find themselves in the World Cup with a solid chance to advance deep into the competition.
With established stars at every level, France are well-prepared to make a run at the title in the summer of 2014. But can they beat a highly ranked team when they get to the knockout rounds?
France have failed to defeat any top-flight nations in recent matches, with a win over Italy in late 2012 representing their only respectable victory in preparation for the World Cup.
France have a lot to prove if they want to overcome the tough opposition they'll face in the knockout rounds of the World Cup.
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SPI Ranking: 8
Beginning with the Uruguayans, the remaining teams in these rankings are all capable of being considered "favorites" to win the World Cup in 2014.
That's true of Uruguay, who feature top-level players on every level of their squad.
Strikers Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez lead the way with tremendous goal-scoring ability. Defenders Diego Godin and Maxi Pereira hold the back line with skill and discipline, and Fernando Muslera is a great goalkeeper.
But this team has fallen short in qualifying and must win a two-leg fixture against Jordan just to make the field for the World Cup. And that's why they're on the bottom of the list of potential favorites to win the biggest prize in world football.
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SPI Ranking: 6
Those not well-versed in their international football may not know that Falcao is a Colombian and that he's a leading star for their very impressive national team.
The AS Monaco striker, who is joined at the club by fellow Colombian James Rodriguez, is one of the best players in the world for both club and country, and helped lead his national team to a second-place finish in CONMEBOL qualifying.
There is no shortage of talent in midfield and at striker for Colombia, who will be playing on familiar turf in Brazil for the World Cup. And they posted an impressive defensive record in qualifying as well.
But they did not defeat Argentina in either game against the top team in their qualifying group, meaning they fall short of the top five in these rankings.
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SPI Ranking: 11
No nation has rocketed up the rankings quite like Belgium, who have to be considered serious contenders for the 2014 World Cup.
Two of the best players in the Premier League, Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany, are among the plethora of talented players for the Belgians, who have a golden generation of talent entering their prime just in time for next summer's tournament.
They don't have experience in the most important games of big tournaments, so they don't have the edge on more proven nations such as Germany or Spain.
But in terms of talent, Belgium can go man-for-man with any nation in the world and compare favorably.
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SPI Ranking: 9
The Netherlands are a tested bunch of talented players who know how to win in tournament atmospheres.
But they suffered a major setback during the 2012 European Championships, failing to get out of the group stage after a winless three games. They're going to want to redeem themselves at the World Cup and they have the personnel to do just that.
They lack stars on defense but make up for that in the midfield and in attack. Robin van Persie is one of the best strikers in the world, and Kevin Strootman is a promising player growing into his own in the midfield.
The Dutch have enough players and enough experience to win it all. Can head coach Louis van Gaal lead them back to the final for the second successive World Cup?
That remains to be seen, but they may lack the defensive stopping power to get it done.
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SPI Ranking: 2
Lionel Messi is a fantastic player. He's among the best ever to play football and he alone can propel a team to incredible heights.
But in the World Cup, he gets the rare opportunity to go against the best every other nation has to offer, which isn't the same as dominating La Liga every weekend with Barcelona.
The Argentine side have a well-rounded team which won CONMEBOL qualifying with ease, but that's without rival Brazil in the mix. That's where it gets tricky for Messi and his teammates.
Can they succeed on Brazilian turf? Will they feel at home in South America or will natives show up to root against Argentina and cause them to lose their nerve?
There is no question this team has the players to win the World Cup. But can they overcome their rivals on the biggest stage to bring home the trophy?
SPI Ranking: 4
Since the beginning of EURO 2012 qualifying, the Germans have only lost one competitive match, the final of the European Championships against Italy.
They have faltered in a few friendlies, but they simply have not slipped up in matches that matter for major tournaments.
This speaks to the experience and cohesion of the side, which features well-known talents in goal (Manuel Neuer), defense (Philipp Lahm) and midfield (Mesut Ozil).
So can they triumph and win the World Cup?
That will come down to their ability to keep up with the special players for the other top teams. They don't have a player such as Messi or Neymar, so can they generate enough defense and attack to overcome their lack of special playmakers?
SPI Ranking: 3
After winning the 2008 European Championships, 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championships, it's extremely difficult to count out the Spanish in the 2014 World Cup. They're the best national team side in the world.
They're spoiled for choice at every position, with top talents such as Michu and Isco only recently joining the national team for the first time.
As Michael Laudrup says in the video above, it's a very difficult squad to get into for even the best players in Spain and England.
So why aren't they first on the list? They don't have home field advantage.
They have more talent and more depth than Brazil—and they've proven they can dominate international competitions with their current roster. But the Brazilians are at home for the World Cup, so I just can't give the Spanish the top spot.
That said, don't be surprised if La Roja are lifting the trophy next summer after yet another international triumph.
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SPI Ranking: 1
Not only are they the home team for the 2014 World Cup, but they're one of the most talented teams and they're ready to earn yet another trophy to add to their quite full trophy case.
There are incredibly special players all over the roster—from Barcelona sensation Neymar to Chelsea star Oscar to Barcelona stalwart Dani Alves, there is no shortage of skill and ability for Brazil.
And they have the advantage of playing on home turf, which often bodes well for host nations with talented teams
France won the World Cup when they hosted in 1998, while Germany in 2006 and Italy in 1990 finished third while hosting the event.
Having familiar venues and comfortable climates should bode well for Brazil, who don't need much of an advantage with their talented group of players.
They're the favorites to win the World Cup, but Spain will give them a massive test in the knockout rounds.