Who’ve you got to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup? Haven’t made up your mind yet? Well, if you’re one of those fence sitters who’s just itching for a bandwagon to jump on, here’s a comprehensive ranking (using my secret sauce) of all 32 teams competing for the coveted crown.
Man for man, this very much looks like the best team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. There’s not a discernible weakness in sight. Selecting the right combination from an embarrassment of riches in the midfield and effectively handling the weight of so many heavy (and heady) expectations might ultimately prove to be coach Joachim Low’s biggest challenge.
The Selecao’s current World Cup squad lacks the type of flair and creativity that has been abundantly evident in previous aggregations from the land of Samba. However, what this unit lacks in skill, they seemingly make up for in will. The likes of Oscar and Neymar will have particularly important roles to play. So, too, will the overlap-happy wingback duo of Dani Alves and Marcelo.
They may be old(er), but they’re definitely not cold. The Spanish midfield is still right up there with the very best in the world. If one of the strikers can go on a hot scoring streak during the tournament, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that the Iberians could mount a very solid defense of the title they won four years ago.
The presence of the likes of captain Lionel Messi, Napoli’s resurgent hitman Gonzalo Higuain, and Manchester City sharpshooter Sergio Aguero translates into La Albiceleste having arguably the most lethal strike force at the tournament. The Angel di Maria-led midfield isn’t three bad either. It’s in defense, however, where one figures they may continue to fall short on the sport’s biggest stage.
In the days of yore, Italy was renowned for playing the type of lock down defense that made overcoming even a 1-0 deficit against them a nigh on impossible task. Those days might well have passed. However, so too have the times when the Azzurri would struggle mightily to find that one goal. The relatively recent injection of exciting – if enigmatic – offensive talents such as Mario Balotelli has helped the team to assume a free-scoring persona. Who would have thunk it???!!!
Two-time World Cup winners Uruguay have really reemerged as a team to be reckoned with in recent years. This return to prominence has been keyed by solid goalkeeping, defensive play, and midfield play. However, most of all, it’s been inspired by the outstanding productivity of the striking triumvirate of Luiz Suarez, Edinson Cavani, and veteran Diego Forlan. As long as they continue to fire on all cylinders, Uruguay will continue to be a big threat to all and sundry.
Les Bleus might just be rounding into their best form at the perfect time. Even without the injured Franck Ribery, they still have quality to make a strong title push in Brazil. If they are to do it, the midfield will be key. Almost any combination they throw out there will possess the power and the pace to impose their will on the opposition in the critical middle of the park. If Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema are able to combine like they did against Jamaica recently, France could make a very deep run.
Oversized egos and infighting have often conspired to stymie the Clockwork Orange at the big tournaments. Exhibit A: the embarrassing first round exit at Euro 2012. The 2014 edition of the team looks to be a much more unified bunch. Yet, they can still call on the individual genius of players such as Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneidjer, and Robin van Persie to deliver virtuoso performances when needed. Manager Louis van Gaal also seems to have had a calming influence.
To me, the Belgians are this World Cup’s “bust or boom” squad. If this young, talented aggregation can build up a head of steam during group play, they could quickly morph into the type of juggernaut that their undeniable quality suggests that they could readily become. On the other hand, if things don’t quite go their way early, the fear is that an overall lack of experience on the biggest stage could undermine their performance. A lot will rest on the form of mercurial Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard and the fitness of star striker Romelu Lukaku.
Attack is the best form of defense for the Chileans, who typically like to possess the ball as they probe to find the seams and soft spots in their opponent’s defense. Once found, the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas usually do a fine job of exploiting these vulnerabilities. It’s definitely in defense where they will have their biggest headaches. Gary Medel at centre-half just seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
The English squad reflects an interesting mix of youth and experience. On one side of the age divide stands players such as captain Steven Gerrard and vice-captain Frank Lampard, who aren’t likely to grace the World Cup again. On the other; young bucks like Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana, and Danny Welbeck. Veteran Wayne Rooney, who is currently sitting somewhere in the middle, could be the man whose play pulls the old and the young together to give England a real chance of pushing towards the quarterfinals.
World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo almost single-handedly carried his team to the World Cup with a stunning hat-trick in the second leg of their playoff tie against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in November 2013. If a persistent thigh injury limits his effectiveness, Portugal’s chance will instantly nosedive. Can Nani fill the void?
Croatia is an extremely dangerous team with quality and experience liberally sprinkled all throughout their squad. With a magician like Luka Modric stringing things together in the middle of the park, they have the ability to play some very attractive football. However, when the need arises, they can also buckle down defensively, frustrate opponents, and punish them with precise counterattacking blitzkriegs.
There is a lot of quality residing in the Bosnia-Herzegovina squad. After having their hearts ripped out in the playoffs previously, it’s good to see the likes of strikers Edin Dezko and Vedad Ibisevic finally get the chance to showcase their skills in the World Cup. Consistently good supply from the gifted Miralem Pjanic and co could help them to become one of the tournament’s most successful strike partnerships. Their goalie – Asmir Begovic – and defensive unit aren’t the worst either.
The injury-enforced absence of star frontman Radamel Falcao is obviously something that Colombia would have preferred not to have happen. However, this unfortunate turn of events does open the door for some of the talented youngsters in the squad to assume a starring role on their return to the big platform. Skillful Monaco midfielder James Rodriguez is being tipped by many to have a sensational tournament and officially announce himself to the world. It’s also the enigmatic Fredy Guarin’s chance to make an impression.
16. Ivory Coast
The likes of Didier Zokora, Didier Drogba, and Yaya Youre will be looking to sign off from what could well be their last World Cup excursion in fine style. The squad that they have around them has the potential to help them do just that. They’ve got the pace. They’ve got the power. They’ve got the panache. It’s now a question of whether they have the required desire and discipline to make it all happen. If coach Sabri Lamouchi is able to get the best out of them, they could be Africa’s best placing team at this edition of the tournament.
The Ghanaians were within touching distance of the World Cup semifinals before fate (and the naughty right hand of Luis Suarez) intervened four years ago. The likes of top striker Asamoah Gyan, who missed the resulting penalty, will be looking to erase the painful memories of that heartrending exit from their minds. Like the Ivory Coast, they have the pace and power to manhandle opposing teams. If the midfield fires, the rest of Group G – including Germany – could be in for a rough ride.
It took penalties for Paraguay to finally end Japan’s best ever World Cup run in 2010. Quite a few of the players from that squad – including the impressive Keisuke Honda and the experienced Yasuhito Endo – are back this time around. This year’s squad also boasts Manchester United starlet Shinji Kagawa, who’ll be seeking to expunge memories of a subpar domestic campaign with a strong showing on the sport’s biggest stage. It’s almost a given that they’ll be among the teams best physically prepared to deal with any climatic conditions that Brazil throws at them.
The Swiss epitomize the adage “slow and steady wins the race”. As with the last World Cup when they shocked eventual winners Spain, they’ll be looking to keep it very tight at the back and seize on the lapses of more talented teams like France. Their tough defense and efficient midfield have been a constant in recent years. The big X factor is their young and inexperienced strike force.
Even though he’s now a bit long in the tooth, one can’t help but think that this Russian squad could have still benefitted from having former Arsenal man Andrey Arshavin around. Alas, it seems like his days of repping the national team are over. It’s really Alan Dzagoev’s team to run now. He’ll be able to call on quite a few experienced contemporaries of Arshavin as he attempts to put Russia on the map in the post-USSR era. After being placed in a relatively weak Group H, they stand a very good chance of at least making the second round.
El Tri barely scraped into the World Cup. However, a recent uptick in form during their lead-in to the tournament suggests that they’ll be as tough to overturn on the sport’s biggest stage as they’ve always been. They should battle Croatia for second in Group A behind hosts Brazil. It would do their chances of advancing a world of good if goal poacher extraordinaire Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is able to get back into the groove.
The Greeks will be hoping to make a big second round breakthrough in their third World Cup tournament appearance. While star names are virtually non-existent in their squad, they do have a host of solid contributors in all three thirds of the field. The midfield, in particular, is not short on high level experience. Captain Giorgos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis have both racked up over 100 international caps each. In attack, they’ll lean heavily on Dimitris Salpingidis, who has a knack for scoring big goals.
23. United States
Overall, the US brings a moderately talented squad to the 2014 World Cup tournament. However, what they lack in footballing genius, they generally make up for with determination and desire. Considering the group they’re in, one figures that ace goalie Tim Howard will have a particularly important role to play. Midfielder Michael Bradley is the key man among the outfield players.
This isn’t a vintage Super Eagles squad. You don’t see anyone with the guile of Jay Jay Okocha, the power of Rashidi Yekini, or the dynamism of Nwankwo Kanu. As always, they do have some very talented youngsters in their ranks. If the defense can keep it tight, the likes of Liverpool’s Victor Moses, who seems to have assumed the chief playmaker role, and Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel could conjure up some goalscoring opportunities for Emmanuel Emenike and co.
Apart from Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia, there aren’t many names in the Ecuadorian squad that really jump out at you. They’re very willing to work hard and fight for each other though, which are among the characteristics that have allowed them to consistently punch above their weight in CONMEBOL qualifying.
A quick glance at the Cameroon squad might fill the uninitiated with great optimism that this might finally be the World Cup outing on which they channel the magic of 1990 and make another thrilling jaunt to the quarterfinals. However, after virginal eyes catch glimpses of stories about disputes over bonuses, they’ll probably quickly tear up to thoughts of another nightmarish campaign headlined by underachievement. Can the prodigal son Eto’o and co rewrite this all too familiar script? Only time will tell.
27. Costa Rica
For much of the final round of CONCACAF World qualifying, Los Ticos were the best team on show. The stingiest defense in the section limited their opponents to just seven goals in the 10 matches they played. The often stellar contributions of Levante goalkeeper Keylor Navas and veteran centre-back Michael Umana were critical to this outcome. On their day, the likes of Celso Borges, Christian Bolanos, and striker Bryan Ruiz can combine well with short, snappy passing to disconcert defenses. The young and pacy Joel Campbell could also be a potent threat if his head is in the right place.
28. South Korea
We know that they’ll run hard for the full 90 minutes or more – if the need arises. We also know that they’ll almost always get their tactics right and adhere to the game plan like Glenn McGrath once metronomically stuck to a fourth stump line. At the end of the day, however, there appears to be an inherent lack of quality in this Korean side that will make advancing from Group B quite a tough task. (The retirement of all-time national team greats such as goalie Lee Woon-Jae, Kim Nam-Il, Park Ji-Sung, and Lee Young-Pyo since the 2010 tournament obviously has something to do with it.
Honduras has two physically imposing strikers – the reliable Carlo Costly and the enigmatic Jerry Bengtson – who could give some of the centre-back pairings in Group E a torrid time if they both click at the same time. They also have some other players with a fair bit of quality sprinkled throughout their squad. The relatively weak nature of their group gives them some hope of doing something positive.
Past experience tells me that Australia will be hard to beat. However, with the influential duo of Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano past their respective primes, it’s hard to see where they’ll find the attacking impetus to worry their powerful opponents in Group B.
In captain and centre-half Madjid Bougherra, Algeria’s Fennec Foxes have returned one of the key men who helped to ensure admirable solidity at the back on their belated return to the big stage four years ago. (They actually held the “mighty” England to a 0-0 draw in Cape Town on that occasion.) With that being said, it’s really hard to see where the goals will come from.
Iran has taken a predominantly local-based squad to Brazil. Considering that their top-tier domestic league isn’t particularly highly rated, I really don’t expect them to make that much noise.