Thirty-two countries, eight groups, one winner.
Every four years, the eyes of the sporting world become fixated on the World Cup. Nothing else compares to the pomp and grandeur of world football's crown jewel.
Although international football as a whole has been superseded by the Champions League, there is reason for hope that the 2014 World Cup will be a return to what makes the event so great. The field is absolutely loaded, geopolitics will play a behind-the-scenes role and each match should have a cracking atmosphere in Brazil.
What more could you possibly need?
Brazil couldn't have hoped for a much easier road to the knockout stages. They can stay in second gear and finish top of Group A.
Croatia haven't advanced past the group stage of the World Cup since their third-place finish in 1998. Mexico have been up and down throughout qualification and were a Graham Zusi goal away from missing the World Cup altogether. Cameroon are always their own worst enemy at the World Cup and one step away from implosion. The tournament hasn't even started, and they've already had one pay dispute, per BBC Sport.
The hosts should advance rather easily.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari's more paternal style has brought Brazil together and provided the perfect tonic following the somewhat toxic reigns of Dunga and Mano Menezes.
Brazil had a lot of question marks as to whether they could truly compete with the best this summer, but the 2013 Confederations Cup illustrated how lethal the Selecao can be when they're hitting on all cylinders.
The biggest question surrounding Group A is who will be joining them in the knockout stage.
Cameroon's World Cup history and continued reliance on Samuel Eto'o could spell trouble in Brazil. He's not the talisman he once was, which leaves too much of the creative duties to the more defensive Jean Makoun.
This competition would seem to be between Croatia and Mexico.
For El Tri, there's no telling which team will make the trip to South America—the Mexico who couldn't win at the Estadio Azteca or the Mexico who blitzed New Zealand and the Korea Republic.
Croatia, meanwhile, will have to replace Mario Mandzukic for the opener against Brazil after he was sent off in their last qualifier, per Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl:
Croatia's Mario Mandzukic & Colombia's Fredy Guarín are suspended for at least the 1st game of World Cup after red cards in last qualifiers.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) November 20, 2013
Although Niko Kovac has some other options, none is more dynamic than the Bayern Munich striker.
Still, Croatia should get the better of Mexico in the final match of the group stage in what will likely decide who's the runner-up of Group A. That midfield is simply too irresistible, with Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric central and Mateo Kovacic closer to goal.
Winners: Brazil and Croatia
On to what looks like the toughest of the eight groups of the 2014 World Cup: Group B.
With all due respect to Australia, we'll leave this discussion to only Spain, Chile and the Netherlands.
Of the three, Spain are the most likely to advance. Manager Vicente del Bosque has done a great job in the past of making just enough changes as to avoid complacency amongst players and predictability for the opposition.
The critics said that the reigning European and world champions couldn't win Euro 2012, but lo and behold, La Roja got the job done, albeit somewhat unfashionably.
Diego Costa's fitness was a major question mark after he limped out of the Champions League final against Real Madrid. He played 70 minutes in Spain's last friendly before the World Cup, which was a very encouraging sign.
Del Bosque also admitted that the Atletico Madrid forward still had more left in the tank.
"Juanfran played the entire 90 minutes and held up, Diego Costa played for 70 and he could've gone more but we decided to take him out," he said, per Goal.com's Sacha Pisani.
Spain fall firmly into the designation of being the kings until someone knocks them off, with or without Costa.
Their opponents in the 2010 World Cup final, the Netherlands, have a much less assured future.
The Dutch suffered a major blow with the injury to Kevin Strootman, per ESPN FC:
Netherlands midfielder Kevin Strootman will officially miss the World Cup after having successful ACL surgery today. pic.twitter.com/2iDP4Zc39Y— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 18, 2014
The Roma midfielder thrived in Italy this past season and been one of Louis van Gaal's key players throughout the qualification process. Nobody else in the Dutch squad has Strootman's combination of distribution, power and defending in midfield.
The Oranje could suffer the same fate as they did at Euro 2012, when the disjointed midfield left Robin van Persie on an island spelled doom in the group stage.
So much will depend on the Netherlands-Chile match on June 23.
Under coach Jorge Sampaoli, Chile have returned to the highly entertaining, attacking style that captured the imagination of fans at the 2010 World Cup. Sampaoli isn't an exact replica of Marcelo Bielsa, but his tactics do share many similarities with the coaching legend.
In Arturo Vidal, Sampaoli has one of the best midfielders in the world and somebody who can be the catalyst against Spain and the Netherlands. Alexis Sanchez also had a bit of a career revival this past season with Barcelona after what was an inconsistent 2012/13 campaign.
Chile have all the pieces to at least finish runners-up in Group B. Without Strootman, the Dutch will struggle to create the killer counter-attacks that would expose Chile's somewhat weak back line.
Winners: Spain and Chile
Colombia looked like a World Cup contender until Radamel Falcao went down in January. He was eventually left off the final 23-man roster, so Los Cafeteros will be without one of their best players.
Falcao's absence opens the door for Carlos Bacca, Adrian Ramos or Jackson Martinez to take a larger role and become the hero. All three are talented strikers and should at least help Colombia navigate an unpredictable group.
Jose Pekerman can still call upon James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado on the wings, both of whom offer creativity out wide.
Didier Drogba and Les Elephants could advance out of the group stage at the World Cup for the first time in the country's history. Although Drogba is 36 years old, the Cote d'Ivoire don't have the same problem as Cameroon, in that they have Gervinho and Wilfried Bony providing plenty of support for their aging striker.
Any midfield with Yaya Toure is capable of overrunning a match, so the Cote d'Ivoire aren't too top-heavy, either. Their biggest obstacles will be overcoming their recent history of disappointment between the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup and ensuring that their suspect defence isn't tested too often.
Nothing stands out about either Japan or Greece, so the road to the knockout stage should be clear for both Colombia and the Cote d'Ivoire.
Japan still lack a great goalscorer. Shinji Okazaki is a talented forward, but he's not up to the level of being a consistent attacking threat at the World Cup. Plus, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa have been somewhat poor for their respective clubs this season.
Greece are suffering from some of the same problems up top after Kostas Mitroglou did almost nothing following his move to Fulham. If the Greeks concede first, they're sunk.
Winners: Colombia and Cote d'Ivoire
Following the narrative of hobbling strikers, Uruguay are in the same boat as Colombia in that one of their key forwards, Luis Suarez, is in a race against time to be fit for the World Cup. He had surgery to repair his meniscus in May, but his mother was confident that he'll be ready for the trip to Brazil, per Paul Kelso of Sky News:
Luis Suarez's mum has told AP that he has had knee surgery on his meniscus & will be fit in 2-3 weeks so ready for the World Cup— Paul Kelso (@pkelso) May 22, 2014
The Liverpool striker also told the Guardian's Sid Lowe that he never thought he would miss the tournament:
Emotionally, I’ve felt fine; psychologically, I’ve been spectacular. At no time did I feel pressured, at no time have I felt sad because at no point did I think there was a chance of me missing the World Cup. The thought never went through my mind. I could have really cried [in pain] because of this injury but I didn’t because I knew. I knew. When the doctor first spoke to me three little tears fell but no more. My wife said: ‘I can’t believe how strong you’re being’ but I knew I’d make it.
Still, if Suarez is hobbled, Uruguay would be in trouble. As good as Edinson Cavani is, he has, for the most part, failed to carry his great club form over to the national team. La Celeste have also had problems in the past figuring out how to move on as Diego Forlan hits a more pronounced career decline.
Don't forget that Uruguay needed the playoff in order to qualify for the World Cup. They have failed to match their performance levels at the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa America.
At this point, Italy look the class of the group. A midfield with Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi can match up with anybody, and coach Cesare Prandelli has coaxed the best out of Mario Balotelli without getting all of the baggage.
Four years ago, the Azzurri were an embarrassment, but sometimes that's needed in order to bring about the change necessary for the future. Prandelli has transformed the squad from the one that Marcello Lippi took to South Africa.
England are a major wild card in this group. The Three Lions always take a lot of talent to international competitions, but they can never get over their own fatalism.
Qualify for knockout stages. Lose penalty shootout in quarterfinals. Repeat.
Accommodating both Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney will prove difficult for coach Roy Hodgson and be England's ultimate undoing. They won't even accomplish the first step of what has become their customary journey.
Winners: Italy and Uruguay
Let's go ahead and put France through. Les Bleus have had a tough go of it in the last two international tournaments, but it would take a collapse of epic proportions for them to not advance out of Group E. And with the way that the team has turned a corner under Didier Deschamps, that doesn't look like it will happen.
The loss of Franck Ribery will be a blow for Deschamps, but he has enough to at least get through to the knockout stages.
The battle for the second spot will be between Switzerland and Ecuador. The former arguably looked better in qualification, while the latter has the built-in South American advantage in terms of dealing with the climate.
The problems for Ecuador are twofold. They failed to win a match away from home during CONMEBOL qualification, and their defence leaves a lot to be desired.
Of course, Switzerland don't have a consistent No. 9. Scoring goals could be a major problem for the Swiss in Brazil.
In terms of the whole of the squad, though, they get the slim edge. The Switzerland midfield is a bit underrated with the double pivot of Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami.
Winners: France and Switzerland
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||21||11-13|
In the interest of keeping this brief, it's gonna be Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Iran could spring a surprise, but they lack the squad depth and talent necessary to sustain the kind of three-match run in order to advance. Nigeria, meanwhile, are among the biggest underachievers each year. The Super Eagles have finished fourth in the group in each of their last two World Cups.
For those pointing to Nigeria's 2013 Africa Cup of Nations title, it took all of one day for the systemic problems with the national team to rear their ugly head.
Argentina have improved by leaps and bounds under Alejandro Sabella from where they were under Diego Maradona four years ago, and Bosnia-Herzegovina have a proven goalscorer (Edin Dzeko), a dynamic midfielder (Miralem Pjanic) and a link between the two (Muhamed Besic).
Winners: Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina
The United States are under the very real threat of walking into the 2014 World Cup and walking out with zero points. Germany are one of the best teams in the world, Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo and Ghana have been a bogey team for each of the last two World Cups for the U.S.
With Landon Donovan's exclusion, coach Jurgen Klinsmann also looks to be waving the white flag already. Donovan has struggled a bit with the Los Angeles Galaxy this year, but there's no question that he was a better option in 2014 than Julian Green.
Klinsmann seems intent to turn Brazil into a learning opportunity for the 2018 World Cup.
Ghana might be contenders to advance in some other groups, but getting past either Germany or Portugal will be extremely tough to do. Both the Germans and Portuguese have issues in terms of finding a No. 9, but their midfields are loaded.
The problem has plagued Portugal for a while now, but Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world. Sooner or later, he's gotta step up at an international competition. The Real Madrid winger as at the peak of his powers, and he knows that nipping the World Cup from Neymar in his home country and Lionel Messi in his home continent would be the sweetest triumph of all.
Playing Miroslav Klose at striker or making Mario Gotze a false nine isn't an optimal choice for Joachim Low, but either would be good enough to get the job done in the group stage.
There is a legitimate concern as to whether Bayern Munich's poor end to the season could have an effect on the national team, though.
Winners: Germany and Portugal
Belgium couldn't have hoped for a better draw as they try to match what have become almost impossible expectations for Brazil. The Red Devils have gone from sexy dark horse to possible contender to "holy crap, look at all of those attackers, they're gonna win the World Cup."
The Belgians have been in the dark for so long in terms of international football that you wonder if they need to taste disappointment before they're truly ready to conquer the world.
Denmark's European title in 1992 would be the best parallel to Belgium winning an international tournament, but the Danish Dynamite had already been semifinalists at Euro 1984 and qualified for the '86 World Cup before they reigned supreme in Sweden.
Belgium should at least finish in the top two of Group H, and maybe that will give them all the confidence and belief they need make a deep run.
Predicting who will be joining them is much more difficult.
Algeria aren't that highly regarded, but they're far from the defensive, unadventurous side of 2010. Although they always lose their best talent to France, the Fennec Foxes have a squad capable of finishing runner-up.
South Korea suffer from the opposite problem that their Asian compatriots Japan do. They have a talented forward, Son Heung-Min, who will likely get left on an island because he doesn't have the playmakers around him to provide support.
In the end, Russia seem the most equipped team to compete with Belgium. They have a manager in Fabio Capello who's won the biggest trophies in the world and at least has some World Cup experience. And with Aleksandr Kokorin, they have somebody who can finish, unlike Aleksandr Kerzhakov at Euro 2012.
Winners: Belgium and Russia
Follow @JosephZucker on Twitter.