Ranking the Top Contenders for 2018 World Cup
The 2014 World Cup has ended, which puts the attention on Russia in 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in attendance for Sunday's final as the new hosts take over.
Germany finally captured that elusive fourth World Cup by defeating Argentina 1-0 on Sunday. It had been 24 years since the Germans last stood at the top of the football world before this past tournament.
As a result, Die Mannschaft are obviously the team to beat going forward. However, several other countries impressed, including this year's finalists. Some teams boasted dynamic young players who performed well above expectations.
The aforementioned points certainly indicate competitiveness for the 2018 World Cup. In this slideshow, five potential candidates should challenge for the sport's greatest prize. These selections are based on youth development, previous results (including this summer's spectacle), coaching, cohesiveness and intelligence on the pitch.
Here are the five top contenders for 2018 at this time.
Colombia dazzled fans across the globe during the 2014 World Cup. Their flair and passion in every match drew a lot of neutrals into their corner. Despite Los Cafeteros' heartbreaking elimination in the quarter-finals, they have a lot to be proud of in the future.
Whether it's James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado or Juan Quintero, Colombia has a lot of potential up front. Radamel Falcao also missed the World Cup this summer. He'll be 32 by the time the 2018 edition rolls around, but he should still be in the 23-man squad.
The only issue is the defence. Thirty-eight-year-old Mario Yepes has been past his prime for a while. This has definitely been his last World Cup.
If manager Jose Pekerman stays on, he could have a problem replacing Yepes. If the former Milan player is still starting at his age, clearly the player pool is thin at center-back.
Yepes' center-back partner, Cristian Zapata, is 27, but he is a sluggish defender. He will need someone speedy beside him if he starts.
AC Milan's Jherson Vergara is supposed to eventually fill in at a defensive position. He was impressive in the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, but since then, he's seemingly regressed.
Vergara was loaned out to Parma in January but failed to win an appearance. He'll spend the 2014-15 season with Serie B club Avellino. The positive for Colombians is that the youngster is just 20 years old. Defenders usually take another decade to reach their full potential.
4. The Netherlands
Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal put his trust in a lot of young players for this World Cup. Some didn't expect the Dutch to make it to the semi-finals, but they did, and it was thanks in large part to the Feyenoord products.
Stefan De Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Daryl Janmaat and Jordy Clasie are going to be key pieces for the national team in 2018. Former Feyenoord members such as Ron Vlaar, Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie represented the veterans and will pass the torch to the next generation of players.
The Netherlands are always churning out quality young players who eventually get a chance with the Dutch national team. Ola John, Marco Van Ginkel and others could be the future of the attack. On the other hand, it might take a couple of more years until more options turn up that are ready to step in and fill those big voids.
It's up to new manager Guus Hiddink to begin grooming the new generation. However, Hiddink is only in charge until Euro 2016. That could change depending on results, of course.
France are on the rise. It started at Euro 2012 when former manager Laurent Blanc led them to the quarter-final. The elimination to Spain resulted in Blanc's resignation. Didier Deschamps replaced him, and this move led to a boom in French football again.
France won the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, and midfielder Paul Pogba won the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament. Now the 21-year-old is an integral figure with the senior side under Deschamps.
The 2014 squad was the 13th youngest squad by average age. That number was increased by the likes of Bacary Sagna (31) and reserve goalkeeper Mickael Landreau (35).
Deschamps had his contract extended to 2016 after steering France past the World Cup playoffs. His bosses would be smart to keep him around for the 2018 World Cup cycle.
That's when youngsters from that U20 squad such as Lucas Digne, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Kurt Zouma and others could feature in more prominent roles in 2018. If that's the case, France will be loaded with plenty of talent with the perfect coach to manage them.
Belgium's expectations at the 2014 World Cup were high. Their squad was the second youngest out of all 32 teams. This is one reason why the 2014 World Cup was too early for the Red Devils to assert themselves.
Thankfully for Belgian fans, their national pool is loaded with talent. The likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois won't be any older than 27 once the 2018 World Cup begins.
This World Cup was a valuable learning experience for manager Marc Wilmots as well. He's grown in his role with these young men as he's brought the national team back from despair.
Belgian football has come a long way. The youth development plan should lead to an even stronger group of players for the 2018 World Cup.
The top contender entering the 2018 World Cup has to be Germany. They're the defending champions and, as of right now, are clicking on all cylinders.
The team is still young. Even with Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose all approaching, or in, their 30s, there are tons of younger, suitable replacements. Klose will obviously be the biggest loss at this point, since he's played in his final World Cup at 36 years old.
Kevin Volland, who was omitted from the final 23-man squad, is one option for manager Joachim Loew. The Hoffenheim striker is still just 21. He also scored 11 goals in 33 matches this past season in the Bundesliga, per ESPN FC. That's an excellent performance from a forward of his age on a mid-table team.
Timo Werner deserves a look as well. He's just 18 and scored four goals with Stuttgart in the 2013-14 campaign, per ESPN FC. However, he started 30 games in his debut season, so there's still a lot more to come.