Ranking the Early World Cup 2014 Favorites
World Cup 2014 is just one empty summer away. We're off to Brazil this time, where the children kick footballs to school and swathes of beautiful women samba their way through every match.
England might be the home of the game, but Brazil is its beautiful, life-affirming soul.
The five-time champions will be hosting the World Cup for the second time. The first saw South American rivals Uruguay win a bizarrely-formatted tournament with no final in 1950.
Brazil hadn't even won a World Cup back then. This time, they host as the most successful nation in the tournament's history and with a monumental weight of expectancy on their backs.
To triumph, they'll need to see off the challenge of defending champions Spain, who'll be after a remarkable fourth straight major tournament success.
There's also their South American rivals, Argentina and Uruguay, to consider, along with the likes of perennial challengers Germany.
It's early days to make a prediction, but here's my ranking of the top six contenders for World Cup 2014.
World Cup wins: 2 (1930, 1950)
Potential star player: Luis Suarez
Uruguay won the last major tournament held in South America, the 2011 Copa America in Argentina.
That success followed their semifinal-run at World Cup 2010 and marks Uruguay out as a competition-savvy team who have to be taken seriously in Brazil.
Currently ranked fourth in the FIFA world rankings, Oscar Tabarez's team are unbeaten in friendly and competitive matches since May 2011.
In Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, they have a strikeforce capable of ripping through the best defenses in the world. And there should be plenty to come from the likes of young midfielders Gaston Ramirez and Diego Rodriguez, along with Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates.
Uruguay can be a factor. Can they win the whole thing? Probably not.
World Cup wins: 0 (Quarterfinals 1970, 1986)
Potential star player: Marco Fabian
Mexico are riding high. El Tri added the 2012 Olympic title to their 2009 and 2011 Gold Cup triumphs, deservedly beating favorites Brazil in the final at Wembley Stadium.
It was a tournament that saw Mexico lay down a marker as genuine contenders for 2014.
They're not favorites, but this Mexico team will surely go further than the five before them—all of whom made their exit at the last-16 stage.
The justification for that can be found in players like Marco Fabian, Javier Aquino, Oribe Peralta, Giovani Dos Santos and Hiram Mier. And in the togetherness and spirit of a Mexico team who appear ready to go to the next level.
Getting to the quarterfinals should be expected. Mexico are capable of going further in Brazil.
World Cup wins: 3 (1954, 1974, 1990)
Potential star player: Mario Gotze
We thought Germany would be the team to challenge Spain's dominance at Euro 2012, but Joachim Low's team were outclassed by Italy in the semifinals, and German high hopes were once again deflated.
It's now 16 years since Germany won a major tournament, at Euro 1996. The three-time World Cup winners have been through a similar drought before, and it's worth remembering that one ended with back-to-back triumphs at the 1972 European Championships and '74 World Cup.
Could they end the barren run in Brazil?
For it to happen, Low's young team will have to find a way to their best form in the matches that really matter. We know what they're capable of, but at recent tournaments, there's been a tendency for Deutschland to fall flat at the worst possible moment.
If Low can add a steely nerve, he clearly has a team capable of winning the next World Cup.
Consider the maturing talents of Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Holger Badstuber, Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus and Co. Consider a midfield marshaled by the still imperious Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Germany are a threat, but much may depend on when and where they play their matches. When you play with pace and dynamism, the last thing you need is a scorching hot afternoon with high humidity.
World Cup wins: 2 (1978, 1986)
Potential star player: Lionel Messi
Argentina have disappointed at five straight World Cups since being beaten by West Germany in the final of Italia 90, never once advancing past the quarterfinal stage.
For a nation of their footballing heritage, not to mention one now boasting the world's best player in Lionel Messi, you'd have to call that underachievement.
What presents at World Cup 2014 is the most glorious opportunity to put things right—and in so doing, strike down their most bitter rivals, Brazil, in the process. If that's not motivation, then I don't know what is.
Argentina certainly have the talent to do it. When you've got attacking players like Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi, you're always a threat.
There's been strong evidence in recent friendlies and World Cup qualifiers, too. But with Argentina, there's always been an element of unpredictability. We could get a meltdown; we could get a master class. If it's the latter, and Messi is at his mercurial best, they can break Brazilian hearts.
World Cup wins: 5 (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Potential star player: Neymar
The obvious line is that Brazil will romp home. Six teams have won their home World Cup, and no nation outside of South America has won a World Cup hosted in the continent.
Then there's the fact Brazil won the Under-20 World Cup in 2011, which tells us they have at their disposal a sparkling next generation with time to mature into world-beaters. Some are already close to that level.
Neymar, Oscar, Lucas Moura, Leandro Damiao—just a snapshot of a team capable of putting on an attacking clinic before their home fans in 2014.
What stands between them and glory are two huge obstacles.
The first is a defense that has proved itself disorganized and porous in recent friendlies and during the Olympics—where Brazil's team was widely deemed to be fairly close to the one we can expect to see at the World Cup.
The second is the potentially suffocating level of expectancy before their home fans. Only winning, and winning well, will do for the Brazilian people.
A varying combination of both could cost them a sixth title.
World Cup wins: 1 (2010)
Potential star player: Jordi Alba
Spain will be doubted heading into World Cup 2014. Pundits will say they're a waning force at the end of their life cycle and cite heavily the fact that no nation outside of South America has won a tournament there.
We heard the doubts in the buildup to Euro 2012, of course, and look what happened there.
Spain progressed to the final and conducted a footballing master class that was as impressive as anything we saw in their South African run to glory in 2010.
South Africa. Now there's a continent that's not Europe. You might remember Spain went there and inflicted tiki-taka torture on every team that came in their way.
So what of their aging team? Well, what you're really talking about there is Xavi, who'll be 34 and—injuries permitting—probably still eminently capable of stroking the ball around. Carles Puyol is another, but even if he's past it, they did just fine without him in Poland and Ukraine.
You could argue 2014 will see this all-conquering Spain team at their collective peak. Andres Iniesta will be 30, Cesc Fabregas, 27, Iker Casillas in his goalkeeping prime at 33. The central defensive pair of Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, 25 and 27, respectively.
Brazil might be the host nation, but Spain will once again be the team to beat.