History will be made, and legacies will be defined this summer in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup.
Although many world football fans are bemoaning the death of international football, no one event galvanizes the sporting public quite like the game's biggest tournament. People you never knew were football fans come out of the woodwork with an opinion as to how their favorite country with perform.
Heck, even here in the United States, Landon Donovan's exclusion from the World Cup squad has been met with almost universal disdain and been discussed ad nauseum across multiple media platforms.
American fans may be in for a surprise—and not of the good kind—come June. The U.S. isn't the only country, though, with a wide variance of outcomes possible in Brazil.
Here's a look at the rankings for all 32 teams in the field for the 2014 World Cup. Those underlined are most positioned to surprise, whether it be good or bad.
The kings stay the kings.
Spain have their fair share of issues: the health of Diego Costa, fatigue, predictability, tactical deficiencies, etc. But La Roja demonstrated at Euro 2012 that they can adapt to changing times a little bit in order to maintain an edge on the competition. The 2013 Confederations Cup could be a harbinger of things to come, but Spain deserve the benefit of the doubt at this point.
Speaking of the Confederations Cup, it could not have been a better proving ground for Brazil. Some wondered if the Selecao would collapse under the weight of expectations. If anything, though, the raucous home atmosphere spurred the players on to what was a fantastic series of performances.
Luiz Felipe Scolari led Brazil to a World Cup title 12 years ago, and he may well do it again this summer.
Funny how hiring a manager who knows what he's doing improves your chances at the World Cup. Diego Maradona was comically out of his depth four years ago. Watching him manage Lionel Messi would be akin to watching Lucille Bluth behind the wheel of a brand-new Ferrari.
This time around, Alejandro Sabella has Argentina hitting on all cylinders. He's an adept tactician who won't shy away from a pragmatic approach when the time calls for it.
Perhaps no other World Cup favorite has as much consternation surrounding the squad. Supporters are questioning the tactical ability of coach Joachim Low, and he's publicly questioning whether his players are ready for the tournament.
"At the moment we have only seven or eight players who are in top form," he said to Stern, a publication in Germany, via Reuters' Karlos Grohmann for the Daily Mail. "This whole situation is causing some headache. Klose, (Sami) Khedira, (Mario) Gomez, (Ilkay) Guendogan, Schweinsteiger, they are all players who are pillars in our team but they lack match rhythm."
The fact that 35-year-old Miroslav Klose will likely start for Die Mannschaft is a major indictment on Low's lack of options up top. Germany have an overabundance of attacking midfielders, but somebody has to play close to goal, and starting Klose would have to worry some fans.
The last time the Germans won the World Cup was 1990, which seems like an eternity for a country that grew so accustomed to winning international tournaments in the 1970s and 1980s. The longer that drought grows, the more the pressure grows on the players.
Anything less than a title will be a disappointment for fans.
Give me the Italian midfield any day of the week. It doesn't get any better than Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo and then you throw in Claudio Marchisio as well. Cesare Prandelli brings out the best in Mario Balotelli without the headaches, for the most part. The Azzurri have at least one more World Cup before they'll need to fully transition to the next generation of stars.
Portugal's chances obviously hinge heavily on the performance of Cristiano Ronaldo, but they are much more than their marquee winger. Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho make up a fantastic central midfield, while Bruno Alves and Pepe might be the most intimidating centre-back duo in terms of craziness/volatility. The problems at forward, of course, persist.
Portugal should advance out of the group.
Prior to finishing runners-up at the 2006 World Cup, France finished dead last in Group A with one point at the 2002 World Cup and then were bounced out in the quarter-final stage at Euro 2004.
The 2010 World Cup was an abject disaster for Les Bleus as they finished last in Group A with one point. They followed that up with a quarter-final exit at Euro 2012.
France may have needed some luck in order to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, but the fact of the matter is, they're in Brazil. The manner in which they qualified is irrelevant. If anything, their comeback against Ukraine was the most fight France have shown in years, at least outside of the dressing room.
Didier Deschamps has brought some much-needed stability to the team, even with Samir Nasri's exclusion causing a mini-controversy. France have always had the talent. It was a matter of getting everything right off the pitch.
Les Bleus at the very least have a golden road to the knockout stage, and from there, anything can happen in a one-off knockout match.
Belgium have been so hyped that they may have reached the point to where they're overrated. They've gone from being a trendy dark horse to anything less than a semi-final appearance is a disappointment.
Let's not forget that Belgium haven't been to a World Cup since 2002, and their last European Championship was in 2000. How many countries have gone from being in the cold for 12 years to making a deep World Cup run?
In terms of talent, the Red Devils can go toe-to-toe with anybody. What they lack is experience in international tournaments. Their players haven't dealt with the weight of expectations before.
The circumstances off the pitch were much different, but the hype surrounding Colombia heading into the 1994 World Cup followed much the same trajectory as Belgium's. Famously, the Colombians were knocked out in the group stage.
Belgium may have to face some adversity at international tournaments before they can taste success.
Uruguay are the most boom-or-bust South American team. The 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa America showed that they can be viable contenders. The converse is that most of the players from those teams are still around. The best-case scenario is the Uruguayans get to the final. The worst-case scenario is Italy's 2010 World Cup performance.
You gotta love Bosnia-Herzegovina's approach. Since they can't defend all that well, they figure that attack is the best form of defence. Safet Susic's gung-ho style could backfire in a big way in Brazil, but it will at least be a lot of fun to watch.
With a healthy Radamel Falcao, Colombia are a potential top-five side—without him, not so much. Jose Pekerman has an abundance of attacking players, but teams may not respect the Colombian attack as much with a hampered Falcao. That could in turn mean that Pekerman's suspect defence is tested in a big way.
Few countries will provide more bang for the buck in Brazil. Not only do they utilize an attacking, high-energy style but they also have some major difference-makers with Alexis Sanchez, Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas. Although they were given a nightmare of a group, the Chileans should finish in the top two.
Even before the Kevin Strootman injury, the Dutch flattered to deceive. Many seem to be giving them the benefit of the doubt simply because they're the Netherlands, completely ignoring the disaster that was Euro 2012. Coach Louis van Gaal has sparked the much-needed youth movement, but it will be at least another two years before the Dutch are a serious contender again.
Mario Mandzukic's suspension looms large over Croatia, but Eduardo, Ivica Olic or Nikica Jelavic could fill in in an emergency situation. England got along without Wayne Rooney at Euro 2012, so missing out on a talismanic striker isn't the worst thing in the world.
The Croatian midfield is among the best in Brazil. Luka Modric has gone from being considered one of the worst signings of the 2012/13 season in La Liga to becoming a key player for the European club champions.
Whatever secret still surrounds the immense talent of Ivan Rakitic will also be revealed in Brazil. The Sevilla midfielder has been brilliant this season for the Europa League winners, and he'll spearhead Croatia's attack.
Writing for Bleacher Report, Croatian football expert Aleksandar Holiga examined Croatia's potential:
At the moment, the squad appears to be in excellent shape. It’s brimming with in-form players who are full of confidence and led by a young, dynamic manager who knows them inside-out as their former teammate and leader on the pitch.
There are a few problems, of course, like the worrisome lack of pace on the flanks, the lack of muscle in midfield and the mechanisms of their transition, which have yet to be fully established.
But this team should be a whole different animal than the one that struggled in the qualifiers. If Kovac succeeds in making it more than the sum of its parts, it could prove a hit in Brazil.
The Mandzukic situation will obviously have a big effect on Croatia, but they're much bigger than one player.
The Swiss are undoubtedly the weakest of the seeded teams, but some critics are discounting them without justification. Switzerland lack a competent No. 9, but their midfield is very underrated. The double pivot of Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler can keep the Swiss in any game.
Have expectations ever been this low for England at an international tournament, aside from maybe Euro 2008, when they didn't qualify?
Roy Hodgson will have to sort out the attack. Rooney always commands a huge role in the side, but with Daniel Sturridge's fantastic season with Liverpool, the manager will have to accommodate the two into his formation.
English fans probably don't have a positive opinion of Fabio Capello after his time in charge of the Three Lions, but he's a fantastic coach who's brought some defensive organization to Russia. The back four has improved a lot over the last two years, and as long as Aleksandr Kokorin can be the striker that Aleksandr Kerzhakov wasn't at Euro 2012, the Russians will be fine.
Mexico have played well of late, but you can't look past how marginal they were for most of the qualification round. The Estadio Azteca went from a cauldron to a tea kettle. Drubbing New Zealand in the playoff doesn't transform El Tri into a top-notch team. Still, Mexico have the most pure talent of any CONCACAF side. Maybe the prestige of the World Cup will bring out the best in them.
19. Cote d'Ivoire
Of the four African sides at the World Cup, Cote d'Ivoire have the best shot at making it to the knockout stages. Yaya Toure can boss the midfield, and while Didier Drogba is 36 years old, Les Elephants have a stable of attackers (Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho) who can supplement the aging star. Group C is also far from a gauntlet.
Here's a quick note to any player who wants to move ahead of a World Cup: make sure you'll play at your new club.
Kostas Mitroglou has done next to nothing since moving to Fulham, putting Greece in a tough position for this summer. He's a deadly poacher when at his best, but Mitroglou is woefully out of form at the moment. The strength of Greece's defence means you can't discount them too much.
It's a shame that Japan don't have a strong attack to bolster their loaded midfield. The way in which Yasuhito Endo patrols the centre of the pitch allows Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda to fully embrace their creative skills. The only problem is that once they get the ball near the 18-yard box, they don't have many options.
Like many other African countries, Ghana have been plagued in the past by backbiting amongst the players and disorganization in the country's football association. Things seem a little more harmonious this time around. A midfield with Kevin-Prince Boateng, Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari will be tough for any opponent to break down.
Ghana are knocked down few spots, though, after getting drawn in Group G. They'll struggle to in the top two.
23. Korea Republic
Korea Republic have a terrific striker in Son Heung-Min. The 21-year-old was one of Bayer Leverkusen's best players this past season. However, since his national team doesn't have a lot of talent surrounding Son, he can be marked out of games by tough defences. Korea Republic were given a lifeline by the draw, so they could sneak into the knockout stages.
Ecuador are a trendy pick to advance out of Group E, but their lack of a stable No. 9 might be their undoing. While Felipe Caicedo has played well in the past, Al Jazira in the UAE Arabian Gulf League isn't the best preparation for the World Cup. Also worth noting, Ecuador failed to win a game away from home (0-2-3) during qualification.
Nigeria needed all of one day to spoil their 2013 Africa Cup of Nations title. As much as you want to believe that the Super Eagles can repeat their magic of the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, they seem to shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity. Looking past Nigeria's underwhelming performance at the 2013 Confederations Cup is also difficult to do.
Samuel Eto'o has arguably played above expectations for Chelsea this season, but he's still 33 years old—or 35, according to Jose Mourinho. Cameroon have too much resting on Eto'o shoulders going into to Brazil, and that's to say nothing of the behind-the-scenes machinations that have doomed the Indomitable Lions at the World Cup before.
27. United States
This always looked to be a transitional World Cup for the United States, and then Jurgen Klinsmann excluded Donovan from his final 23-man roster. Supporters may not be happy to see the national-team coach waving the white flag, but if in four years' time Julian Green is a key figure, the plan will have paid off. In what is a brutal group, the Americans may have a hard enough time locking down third.
Honduras couldn't have asked for more in terms of the draw. They're in what is arguably the easiest group of the tournament. The Hondurans did well to finish third in CONCACAF qualifying, ahead of Mexico. Don't sleep on Honduras too much, but the 12 goals they conceded in the fourth round of qualification does send up some warning signs.
Algeria aren't the risk-averse, defensive side they were at the 2010 World Cup, but a change in style is unlikely to bring much success. Algeria have a solid squad and some emerging talents such as Sofiane Feghouli and Islam Slimani, but at a competition as big as this, that's not enough to secure passage to the knockout stages.
Australia were facing an uphill battle before the draw was announced. Not much talent is coming through the pipeline and Tim Cahill can no longer be the inspiring talisman he's been in years past for the Socceroos. They may be able to provide a shock and finish third in Group B, but that's about the ceiling on their World Cup potential.
31. Costa Rica
Most fans became aware of Joel Campbell after his goal against Manchester United in the Champions League round of 16. He and Bryan Ruiz make up a dangerous attack for Costa Rica, but aside from that duo, Los Ticos don't have a ton of talent. They have a better overall team than Honduras, but their tougher group means a lower place in the rankings.
Carlos Queiroz has worked wonders with this Iran squad, and his past experience at the World Cup with Portugal will prove vital. Unfortunately, there isn't much about Iran that makes you think they have the strength to pull any surprises. With so many players based out of the Iran Pro League, most of the team will be unfamiliar with competition as stiff as what the World Cup will provide.