The 2014 tournament, with the guest list now finalised, there are not as many new faces as once hoped.
Iceland, Jordan and Burkina Faso all fell at the last hurdle leaving just one debutant – Bosnia & Herzegovina.
The other 31 countries, including England, have all been here before, and will provide familiar if rather difficult opposition should Roy Hodgson’s side draw them.
The Big Four
Given the unpopularity of the Fifa world rankings it should almost come as a surprise that the four likeliest teams to win the World Cup next summer should be in the top pot, but they are.
Spain, arguably the most artful team in history but surely the most efficient, are going for a fourth straight major tournament triumph. They do look less unbeatable than they did last year, though, after Brazil routed them 3-0 in the final of the Confederations Cup in June.
Then there are, arguably, the world’s two most talented first XIs: Germany, surprisingly fragile in the latter stages of recent competitions, and Argentina, seeming to have found new balance under Alejandro Sabella.
The upwardly mobile
The other four seeds have just two World Cups between them, both belonging to Uruguay, the most recent won in 1950. But they have all earned their places at the tournament, and in the top pot, over the last few years.
Belgium might look the strongest, with their squad full of excellent Premier League players in all positions, but they have been beaten by Colombia and Japan in the last week. Led by Radamel Falcao, Colombia are ferociously fast counter-attackers. Uruguay did not have the best qualification campaign but they are South American champions, and were 2010 semi-finalists. Switzerland are the weakest seeds but do have a good new generation of attacking players.
Ready to take the next step
There are no likely winners in this pot – made up of Asian and central American teams – but at the top end there are four good teams who made the last 16 in South Africa in 2010 and can hope at least to match that this time. Japan are probably the best of them, inventive on the break through Shinji Kagawa and Hiroshi Kiyotake. The United States, under Jürgen Klinsmann, are steadily improving, as are South Korea. Mexico, one of the great underachievers of world football, will need to improve on their poor qualification form.
The other teams will be keener to draw one of the remaining four. Australia, shorter on quality than they used to be, could not get out of the group stage in 2010, though they were 2011 Asia Cup runners-up. Honduras, who took one point last time, have more pace in the side now. Costa Rica, though, qualified one place ahead of them – and two ahead of Mexico – despite not making it to South Africa. Iran, in their fourth World Cup, would do well to reach their first knockout stage.
The entertainers of 2010
The third pot – made up of African and South American teams, and France – contains two of the most entertaining sides of the last tournament. Chile and Ghana both made the knock-out rounds last time playing fast and fearless football. Chile showed again at Wembley on Friday how competitive and skilful they are, with a world-class forward in Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez. Ghana, were it not for Luis Suarez’s handball, would have become the first African team to reach the semi-finals and the way they dispatched Egypt in their qualifying play-off – beating them 6-1 in the first leg – suggests they could be just as dangerous this time.
Must do better
There are four teams in this pot who went out in the group stage last time who all ought to do far better in 2014. Ivory Coast have been to two World Cups, and won two games, but this remarkable generation of players – with Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré and Gervinho – should have a far better record in tournament football. Nigeria are African champions while Cameroon can at least call on the great Samuel Eto’o. Then there are France, a talented squad but a combustible team, who scraped over the line in qualification.
The easy draws
No one who saw England v Algeria in 2010 would be keen for a repeat but there is not much doubt they are the weakest team from this pot of eight. Then there are Ecuador, whom England beat in 2006, captained by Antonio Valencia.
The lurking giants
The unseeded European teams are in this fourth pot and some might claim to have better recent records than Belgium or Switzerland. Italy, of course, were world champions in 2006, lost the final of Euro 2012 and have some remarkable talent. The Netherlands reached the final in 2010 only to lose to Spain after extra time, since when they have tried to integrate a new generation, while Portugal have the world’s best player right now, Cristiano Ronaldo. Then there are England, whose problems are well known.
The solid systems
Everyone knows what to expect from Greece now, after recent years, and Fabio Capello’s Russia did well to win a group that included Israel and Portugal. Croatia have been flaky recently but the Niko Kovac era began with a very impressive play-off win over Iceland.
The one debutant
It should not take this long but here are the only new boys at the World Cup. Bosnia & Herzegovina won their group with some thrilling attacking football and a famous 1-0 win in Lithuania, prompting national celebrations.
World Cup draw: How it will work
The World Cup finals draw will take place at the Costa do Sauípe Resort, Mata de Sao Joao in Bahia state, on 6 December. The final pots are yet to be confirmed by Fifa but are expected to follow the same principle as in 2010.
1 Seeds Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Switzerland, Uruguay.
2 Japan, Australia, Iran, South Korea, Costa Rica, United States, Mexico, Honduras.
3 France*, Chile, Ecuador, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Ghana.
4 Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Russia.
As the lowest-ranked European qualifiers, France will be in a separate pot and drawn with a South American seed.
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