Power Ranking the 32 World Cup Qualifiers
The countdown to the 2014 FIFA World Cup is well and truly on, with almost all the qualified nations for the finals now confirmed.
While predictions of teams' routes to glory will have to wait until pots are confirmed and groups are drawn, we can certainly assess the relative strengths of each nation and rank all 32 in accordance with how likely they are to make an impact on the tournament.
Form during the qualifiers themselves has been taken into account in the ranking, but an element of subjective analysis is also included; many of these nations will be playing in conditions or against opponents which they rarely are tested with, making direct comparisons difficult in terms of form or matching player for player.
Here are all 32 nations ranked from least to most likely to challenge for the biggest prize in all of football.
*Uruguay are included, as they have built up a tremendously large first-leg advantage. Should they fail to proceed to the finals as expected, their places will be taken and re-ordered with Jordan.
Iran received a favourable draw in the third round in the Asia qualifying section but nonetheless did well in their group in the fourth round, finishing ahead of challengers Korea Republic and Uzbekistan.
Even so, their ability to impact on the world stage is extremely likely to be restricted to merely attempting to qualify past the group stage; they have only ever won a single game at the finals (against the U.S.A, France '98) and have never made the knock-out stages.
With the likes of Masoud Shojaei, Javad Nekounam and Reza Ghoochannejhad having enjoyed top-flight experience in Europe, they won't lack for moments of quality, but overall, they will be among the relative minnows in Brazil.
Australia are strong enough to virtually guarantee themselves a World Cup place now that they feature in the Asia section of qualifying, but they made fairly hard work of a place at Brazil 2014 and simply don't have the talent in their squad of previous generations.
The elder members of the side—Tim Cahill, Mark Bresciano, Lucas Neill and such—are still a big part of the regular team despite their advancing years, with few 25-and-under players ready to take their place.
This World Cup, then, will be a final opportunity for them to make a stand and have an impact on the world game—but a lack of goals will cost them just as much as the lack of younger talent.
Australia would be a surprise nation to reach the knockout stages at this point.
Honduras have done exceptionally well to reach another World Cup finals, their second in a row after not previously reaching one since their first appearance back in 1982.
In truth, they have perhaps benefited from Mexico's surprisingly poor qualifying campaign, but they certainly have enough good players in their ranks to warrant their spot at the finals and to trouble bigger nations in any given match.
China-based striker Carlo Costly and English-based midfield duo Wilson Palacios and Roger Espinoza will be big players, but there is experience at international level right throughout the squad.
A first World Cup finals victory will be the best prize Honduras can hope for at the finals, unless they are handed an extremely favourable group draw.
29. Costa Rica
Costa Rica produced a strong showing in the CONCACAF qualifiers, finishing second in the Hexagonal under Jorge Luis Pinto.
The best defensive record in the group is where Costa Rica will look to build their challenge at the World Cup, with only seven goals conceded in their 10 qualifying matches.
There isn't necessarily an awful lot of individual talent at the highest end of the spectrum in the Costa Rica squad, but the likes of Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell will be the big threats to score.
Like Honduras, Costa Rica will likely set their sights initially on winning a group-stage game to give themselves a chance, something they haven't achieved since 2002. But if they are handed a nice draw for the group stage, then they certainly have a chance of making the knock-outs.
After Algeria sealed their passage to the World Cup in fairly contentious circumstances, ousting Burkina Faso in the process, they ensured back-to-back finals berths for the first time since 1982 and 1986.
They have never made it through the group stage and, in truth, will face a surely insurmountable task to achieve it this time around.
Algeria look the weakest of the five qualified African nations, though they will look to the likes of their Spanish-based midfielders Yacine Brahimi, Hassan Yebda and Sofiane Feghouli to bring some quality to the side.
Brahimi in particular has the technical ability to beat players easily and open up opposing defences.
A lack of goals in the squad, though, as well as generally second-rate defenders, will deny them the chance to progress.
Cameroon managed to ease past Tunisia in the play-offs of CAF but are certainly not the strongest African side around at present.
Tensions in the squad and a lack of genuinely top-class talent means they lag behind some of their continental rivals, despite the continued presence of Samuel Eto'o alongside Alex Song, Nicolas N'Koulou and Joel Matip.
Goals are a problem. They netted just eight in six games against Libya, Congo DR and Togo, while aside from Eto'o, only one player in the squad—striker Pierre Webo—has double figures in international strikes.
Without Carlos Kameni, who has played just 12 league games in the past two-and-a-half seasons, they do not have a reliable man to play in goal either.
It's been more than 20 years since Cameroon got out of the group stages at the World Cup, and odds are they won't manage to achieve it this time, either.
Greece will be at their second World Cup in a row and only their third overall after beating Romania 4-2 on aggregate in the UEFA zone play-off.
Still a very organised and dogged team rather than an exciting and flair-filled one, they will attempt to fight their way through the group stage by being hard to beat first and foremost, before taking their chances at the other end.
In 10 group matches in qualifying, Greece scored 12 and conceded four, which tells the story of their game plan—even the likes of Liechtenstein were only dispatched by scorelines of 1-0 (away) and 2-0 (home).
Will this approach be enough to get out of the group stages? It all depends on the draw, but they certainly could. Not much ambition beyond that is likely as Greece have only ever won one match at the finals before.
A final prediction—one win but they don't get out of the groups.
Ghana have made it three finals in a row after dispatching Egypt with relative comfort in the CAF play-offs.
All eyes will be on the Black Stars to see if they can continue their remarkable rise on the world stage in terms of how far they can go; in 2006, they reached the last 16 at the first attempt, and four years ago, they reached the quarter-finals.
With the likes of Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah in their ranks, they certainly have quality in midfield, but the defence remains suspect, and there are not always enough goals in the front men, despite putting seven past Egypt in the two-legged play-offs.
Ghana's impressive run at the World Cup could end at the group stages of Brazil 2014 unless these areas improve. If they do, another last-16 place is possible.
Croatia overcame Iceland in the UEFA zone play-off to book their spot in Brazil, but the loss of key striker Mario Mandzukic to suspension could hit them very hard. It is possible he will miss the entire group stage after getting sent off in the second leg.
The Croats have enough talent and creativity in midfield to trouble any opponent, but question marks linger over whether Niko Kovac can mould this team's tactics quickly enough into a cohesive unit that can regularly get results.
He's got them over the line and to the finals, but Croatia—especially without Mandzukic—could struggle to achieve anything more than getting out of the groups, and even that will be difficult.
Mexico are there, having overwhelmed New Zealand in the first leg of their play-off and standing firm in the return leg.
Mexico, though, are a little lucky to be at this point at all, after a late turnaround in the final two matches of the Hexagonal saw them sneak into the play-offs.
Quite simply, scoring goals was the huge, huge issue for Mexico as they hit just seven in 10 games, winning only twice and drawing five.
Can this, then, be the stimulus to send them on to greater things in the World Cup proper? Perhaps, but the squad is lacking in real top-class talent to be a contender in the latter stages still.
Mexico have been hugely consistent in reaching the last 16 in each of the previous five World Cups, and that will be the aim again this time, but they'll have to be on their game or even that might be out of reach.
22. United States
After a sticky start to the Hexagonal, the USMNT managed to qualify top of the group in relative comfort. Results alone should not really factor into the expectation on what the United States can achieve in Brazil; they should be finishing top given the range of players available to them and the competition they were up against.
However, the U.S. are going to struggle to make a serious impact at the finals.
Depending on the group draw, of course, they should reasonably expect to challenge hard to get into the knock-out phase, but that will likely be the extent of their run in Brazil.
Only once since the first World Cup in 1930 have the USA managed to reach the quarter-finals; if they do that in Brazil, they will have exceeded expectations.
Nigeria convincingly beat Ethiopia in their two-legged play-off to reach the World Cup but will have to show far better quality during the tournament itself if they are to make an impact of any sort.
While not the weakest side around, being paired with even two relatively good opponents would mean a struggle to get out of the group stage based on recent performances, despite the presence of the likes of Emmanuel Emenike, Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel in the side and their African Nations victory.
They lack the tempo in their game to challenge regularly during 90 minutes, but with Stephen Keshi in charge, it's a fair bet that Nigeria will pull off one impressive result at least.
Nigeria could reach the knock-outs—but they will have to be at their absolute best.
Ecuador are something of an odd team to assess; they finished fourth in the CONMEBOL qualifiers to automatically go through, yet their progress has been almost entirely due to their home form.
Seven of their eight home matches resulted in victories, with the other a draw—yet they failed to win a single match away from home, drawing three and losing five.
What to expect of them in Brazil, then?
If teams attack, press and hustle Ecuador, it is likely that their sub-standard organisation in defence will cost them dearly. On the other hand, if they are allowed to counter-attack into spaces and frequently face teams who defend high lines against them, they could make a run.
Ecuador have a chance of progressing to the knock-outs but expect nothing more than a last-16 place for them. Even that will be a stretch, with the most likely outcome a group-stage exit.
Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic? After two legs and six goals shared exclusively between those two world-beaters, it was Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal that won through to Brazil 2014.
Portugal will no doubt feel that they have the capacity to achieve anything with the No. 7 in their ranks, but it's got to be far more of a collective effort if they are to achieve any semblance of success at the finals.
Quite simply, they don't have the squad for that.
Much, as always, depends on the draw. And Portugal could feasibly win their first two games and look comfortably through to the last 16. But I'm guessing it will be much more difficult for them, and they will tread a fine line between a group-stage exit and reaching the knock-outs.
18. Korea Republic
Korea Republic, or South Korea if you prefer, finished a disappointing second in their group behind Iran in the AFC zone, just ahead of Uzbekistan on goal difference.
In general, though, they can be expected to perform reasonably well at the tournament proper; good technical attackers such as German-based duo Koo Ja-Cheol and Son Heung-Min provide an outlet and a goal threat to go with the excellent Kim Young-Gwon in defence, fresh from winning the Asian Champions League with Guangzhou Evergrande.
Korea Republic have made the knock-outs in two of the last three World Cups and are capable of doing so this time, but the round of 16 will likely be their limit.
Regular tournament-goers Switzerland always seem to make the finals of competitions without too much fuss and can be counted on to be solid rather than spectacular once the tournament proper gets underway.
They are dangerous adversaries if taken lightly and are capable of beating good sides on their day, and though their unbeaten journey through qualifying can be somewhat attributed to the favourable group they were handed, there is little doubt they have grown quite an impressive squad over the past few years.
The likes of Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Gokhan Inler add genuine quality to a hard-working and organised team, but they lack a real goalscorer in the squad or a true colossus at the back.
Even so, their high FIFA ranking means they are likely to get a good draw in the World Cup and should be looked upon as—group dependent, of course—almost certainties to make the knock-outs. They should aim for a quarter-final place for real success, which they haven't achieved since 1954, but that might be a stretch too far this time around.
Bosnia-Herzegovina are into the World Cup finals for the first time in their relatively short history but should be rightly ambitious when assessing their objectives for their maiden voyage to compete with the world's best.
They have a compact and settled squad, a solid goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic, two genuine goalscorers in attack with Vedad Ibisevic and Edin Dzeko and plenty of creativity in midfield.
In Miralem Pjanic, they also have potentially one of the players who can be a match-winner in an instant, an important asset in tight international group games where turning a loss into a draw or a draw into a win can be the difference in qualifying for the knock-outs.
With no previous history to assess, no regular game time against non-European nations and little expectation of them from the rest of the world, it could be difficult to predict how they will fare at Brazil 2014.
But they are certainly capable of getting out the groups, and that's where they should aim to start with. Anything after that is a bonus.
Judging by recent World Cup form, France are heading for the final. They won in '98, left at the group stage in '02, lost the final in '06 and exited at the groups again in '10. So, the final again this time?
While there's no shame in finishing second behind Spain in the qualifying group, France have rarely looked like a top-tier side of late and needed a Mamadou Sakho-inspired comeback to beat Ukraine in the UEFA zone play-off.
They'll certainly look to reach the last 16, or even last eight isn't out of the question, but it's hard to see them go beyond that.
For the large number of technical, creative and exciting players in the squad, there are few now who are genuinely of the highest quality on a regular basis other than Franck Ribery. A lack of goals at times also seems as though it could be costly when it matters.
14. Ivory Coast
Despite not having won the Africa Cup of Nations again earlier this year, Ivory Coast are arguably the continent's strongest side and can reasonably be expected to have a good impact at the World Cup.
Having seen off the challenge of Senegal in the play-off round, they will attend their third consecutive World Cup finals. The target, once more, will be to make the knock-out stages, which they failed to do by a narrow margin last time out.
Ivory Coast have an impressive squad containing the likes of legends Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba, but they have to match their technical and physical prowess with tactical resilience when facing better opposition.
If they can do so and maintain their attacking ability, they can reach the knock-out stages. Beyond that, it's the luck of the draw and their concentration in any one game.
Russia are looking once more like a quality attacking unit, though there is a feeling that they continually flatter to deceive at the major tournaments.
Certainly they have the capability to beat good sides and enough attacking power to score goals, but they are facing a situation where this time, they must go on and get past the group stage, something they have not achieved since 1986—when they were still the Soviet Union.
Every player typically in the Russia squad is indeed based in their home country these days, with the Moscow clubs and Zenit St. Petersburg making up the majority.
Russia should get through, but their infuriating habit of wasting chances and self-destructing could yet prevent them of even that minor challenge. If they click, though, the quarter-finals are not beyond them.
Japan have a very interesting squad right now.
They won their fourth-round group in AFC at a canter, losing just once and conceding five goals in eight games and looking like a good bet to at least match their best of reaching the round of 16 at the World Cup.
Japan have plenty of technically gifted players—Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe in midfield are all quality operators on the ball—and impressive tactical discipline. In attack, they have a lot of potential with younger players, with perhaps Yuya Osako a real wild card for them if he makes the tournament squad.
It's difficult to predict exactly where they should aim; in general, they can pick an XI capable of beating many top sides—but the test will come when they do not control possession in games. Can they defend consistently well and be a danger on the counter?
Japan could reach the quarter-finals in Brazil. But everything has to go right for them to do so. They'll certainly be a nation to keep watch on.
England eventually battled through to finish top of their group in qualifying, but they certainly didn't do things the easiest way.
Even so, now they have reached another World Cup, expectation will no doubt begin to rise—though recent losses to Chile and Germany might dampen those somewhat.
There is little doubt that, individually and in terms of experience and history of winning at the club level, England have players who can overcome difficult challenges and beat exceptional sides. However, there is also no denying that a history of failed tournaments is hugely unlikely to change; anything approaching the semi-finals would be an enormous improvement on recent finals.
Reaching the quarter-finals is likely to be the realistic expectation, with anything more seen as success and anything less seen as another wasted opportunity for a good group of players.
Chile finished a comfortable third in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, but unlike Ecuador, their success was relatively split with both home and away wins.
Their 29 goals in 16 games were the second-highest in qualifying, a good pointer as to where their strengths lie—but 25 conceded also points to their porous defence.
Individually and within the team structure, Chile have the players to make a fairly significant impact on the World Cup and should certainly be seen as candidates to make the knock-out stages. If they can avoid the top three or four teams in the last 16, a run to the quarter-finals is indeed not beyond them.
That would be their best achievement since '62, but first and foremost, they need to ensure their defensive organisation is up to scratch so they don't suffer a shock exit at the group stage before they even have the chance to test themselves against the best.
Belgium are seen by many to be the dark horses for a challenge at the World Cup title next year, with their attack-minded team featuring many sprightly young forwards who are real game-changers.
Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Dries Mertens...the names in attack are exciting though perhaps unproven in terms of relentless consistency at the highest level, and the World Cup will be a massive test for them.
Defensively, they have two good goalkeepers and a raft of top-flight defenders, so the squad is well-balanced. Mentality and organisation will perhaps determine just how far Belgium can go. The knock-out phase seems certain, and the quarters are a possibility.
Holland went all the way to the final in 2010 but missed their chance of glory as they came up short against Spain. Having not covered themselves in glory in the manner they approached that final, they could well rue not playing their normal game.
It seems unlikely that they will go quite so far this time around.
True, the Dutch qualified in style—but from a relatively weak qualifying group. That their defence has looked ill-at-ease and disorganised at times speaks volumes for how little they were tested in qualifying, as they conceded just five goals in their 10 games.
In attack, Holland can trouble anyone; Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben continue to shine and a line of pacey or creative attacking midfielders line up with them.
They can look to reach the last eight and would give any major nation a good game, but they're not the biggest tip to go on and win—not even the biggest European one.
Italy, as always, have a threatening-looking squad that should be capable of competing at the top end of the tournament.
Their forward line is looking as youthful, dynamic and exciting as it has for some time, though they were unduly troubled for a time in qualifying, winning six and drawing four of their 10 games.
They could easily be contenders for a semi-final place, but there appears to be something—perhaps lacking a little tempo at times, perhaps a star name short in midfield—holding them back a little from completely standing out as a likely winner.
Ultimately their tournament could go either way—but here's a prediction that they reach the quarter-final stage and go no further.
Uruguay cemented their place in Brazil after the second leg of a play-off against Jordan on Wednesday, but it would be remiss to dismiss Jordan's accomplishments too lightly.
Uruguay, though, ended what was a fairly atrocious qualifying campaign with a marvelous run of form; they won four of their final five games to take the fifth spot, behind Ecuador only on goal difference in the end, after initially looking like they'd struggle to even manage that following just three wins from 11.
Why, then, are they placed so highly? Well, several reasons.
They play on "home soil" in continental terms, a factor that shouldn't be overlooked. They have fantastic tournament experience within the squad that has barely changed since their Copa America win in 2011. They have a solid, settled team with a top-quality manager in Oscar Tabarez...and they have two of the best strikers in world football today.
Put it all together and Uruguay are a very difficult side to beat when they click, and in full tournament mode, they almost certainly will. They might not have the best all-round squad, and they might struggle to replace established stars over the coming years, but Brazil 2014 could see a big tournament for them.
Uruguay will make the quarters and should be considered strongly for a last-four berth.
Colombia showed consistently impressive form to finish second in CONMEBOL qualifying and, after a period of about 16 years in the wilderness, are back at the FIFA World Cup.
They've never got past the round of 16 and only once made it out of the group stages, but this squad has a great mix of youth, pace, strength and individualism that could see them surprise a lot of nations at the tournament.
It's perhaps a little bit of a gamble to pick them so far up the list, but they genuinely have enough about the squad to have an impact and reach the last eight for the first time in their history.
A little luck or a big performance from the likes of Radamel Falcao or James Rodriguez and they could conceivably go a step further.
The depth of resources available to Germany means that, even if they suffer a few absentees through injury—Sami Khedira might be one—they are one of the few lucky nations who can absorb it and replace the stricken player without compromising quality.
If Khedira is absent, they have the Bender brothers, Ilkay Gundogan and Toni Kroos. If Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze are missing, they have Marco Reus, Julian Draxler and Lukas Podolski.
There is such quality, such ability and such depth there that the only real issue for Jogi Loew is getting them all in the squad and then deciding which XI should take to the field.
They are arguably one of the six or seven nations capable of going to Brazil and winning and one of the four that should probably be looking at winning. Anything less than a semi-final appearance would genuinely be a surprise.
By the time the World Cup rolls around, it will have been 36 years since Germany didn't reach at least the quarter-finals. Don't expect that record to go tumbling any time soon.
It is unthinkable to Brazilians that Argentina could win the World Cup on Brazilian soil. For Argentines, it might just about be as perfect as football could get.
It's too simplistic to say that this will simply boil down to whether Leo Messi gets properly fit, but he'll certainly have a say on the matter.
With Kun Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and many others, Argentina certainly have the firepower to do an awful lot of damage at this tournament—and let's face it, not before time. For such a huge nation within the game, they've underachieved since the 1990 event.
A quarter-final appearance should be the least they aim for, but they've managed that in three of the last four World Cups. Something more than that is required for this group of players, with Messi in their midst. The draw and their run in the knock-outs will dictate much of course, but the last four or indeed a final appearance is not out of reach.
Spain are the reigning World Cup holders and have won three successive major tournaments. For many, that makes them favourites heading into Brazil 2014.
Certainly they have the players, the level of ability and the mental confidence to believe it is possible to become the first back-to-back World Cup winners since Brazil themselves in '58 and '62, but somehow, question marks still remain over Vicente del Bosque's men.
Will they have a preferred striker in place? Will Diego Costa be that man, representing Spain in his home country? Is tiki-taka still the way forward, or can they be frustrated now?
The answers will, of course, be succinctly obvious when they rampage through to the latter stages of the tournament—but they've got to the point now where only a winner's medal will be deemed sufficient for Spain.
But they're not quite going to go that far in 2014.
Hosts, neutrals' favourites and perhaps the team most historically associated with the World Cup, Brazil will enter the 2014 edition as arguably both the nation with the best chance of winning and with the biggest expectation of doing so, too.
Their lack of competitive matches over the past few years did not hinder them in the FIFA Confederations Cup last summer, which they won, and the latter stages of the World Tour they embarked on in that period have arguably made them the most cohesive national side on the planet.
With solid tactics, plenty of depth in key positions and several standout names such as Neymar, Oscar and Thiago Silva, Brazil will be the team to beat on their own turf.
Stick your neck out time? Back them all the way in front of their own fans.