Despite Mexico's domination of CONCACAF following South Africa, the USMNT rebounded under the guidance of Jurgen Klinsmann to set the pace in the Hex and in the region, nabbing its seventh consecutive World Cup appearance.
As Brazil 2014 approaches, the US and Klinsmann will be busy locking in a roster that still have plenty of fringe yet to be trimmed, with the hope being that a blend of MLS- and European-based players can help turn the regional power into a consistent international player. Positive results in high-profile friendlies provide hope, and the knockout stage is the expectation for what is still a developing soccer nation.
Jozy Altidore, F, Sunderland (pictured left): The striker flipped a switch mid-year for the US, which coincided with the strong run of form that catapulted the Americans from a just another Hexagonal hopeful to their normal place at the head of the CONCACAF table. He has still yet to find his form on the club side, but his confidence is rising and Klinsmann is certain his form will turn.
Michael Bradley, M, Toronto FC: An unsung hero in the center of the field for the US, Bradley is a calming presence in the defensive third, and has a knack for popping up in dangerous positions as well. He carved out a place with Serie A club AS Roma before moving to TFC in a blockbuster transfer over the winter, and certainly won't take anything for granted with the Nats.

Tim Howard, GK, Everton: Even with the strong play of backup ‘keeper Brad Guzan threatening his starting role, Howard has come up big when the US needed it most. Same old same old with Everton as well during a fast start in the EPL, and the the veteran even tried his hand at broadcasting in his spare time. Plus, he scores goals (video right).
Jurgen Klinsmann (right) has gone from German scoring machine during his playing career to helping transform the US on the international stage since being hired in July 2011. It was a slow beginning, though, as the US struggled to close out 2011 under Klinsmann’s guidance.
Encouragingly, 2012 was better for the Americans, and the team had its best-ever winning percentage in a calendar year under the tutelage of the former Germany and Bayern Munich manager. That success continued in 2013, with the US running off 12 consecutive wins and claiming 15 victories in 16 matches following rumors of a rift in the squad.
Hexagonal record: 7-2-1, 22pts / 15 GF, 8 GA (first place in CONCACAF Hexagonal)
The US took care of business at home, going 5-0-0 against their opponents in the Hex, outscoring them by a combined score of 8-0. A draw at Estadio Azteca in March set the Americans off in the right direction in their road fixtures after a loss to open the Hex at Honduras. Wins in Jamaica and Panama propelled them to the top spot in CONCACAF, and sealed a World Cup berth before they took the field for their final two matches.
10th appearance
The US will be making their 10th World Cup appearance in 2014, and seventh consecutive. Since 1990, they have alternated being eliminated in the group phase and making it into the knockout phase, with their best finish (in the modern era) coming in 2002 at South Korea/Japan, when they topped archrival Mexico in the round of 16 to make it to the quarterfinals. If the trend continues, the US might be looking at an early exit in Brazil. Then again, the pattern has to break sometime.


Heading into 2013, Mexico had plenty of momentum coming into a very busy year that included the Confederations Cup, World Cup qualifying, and the Gold Cup. After falling flat in both summer tournaments, El Tri limped through qualification, only making it by virtue of a playoff against New Zealand in November. Now that they have qualified, they must figure out how to get back on track in time for Brazil 2014, or their time at the World Cup will be very brief.

Javier Hernández, F, Manchester United: The poster boy for Mexican soccer struggled for his country in 2013, but he still has shown he can pop up with key goals when needed. After bursting onto the scene at the 2010 World Cup, Mexico will likely go only as far next summer as Chicharito can take them.
Oribe Peralta, F, Santos Laguna: Led Mexico in scoring during qualification, including a hat trick in the second leg of the playoff against New Zealand. Showed at the 2012 Olympics, where he scored in the gold medal match, that he can perform in the big occasion, and if he is healthy, could prove to be Mexico’s secret weapon in Brazil.
Giovani dos Santos, F, Villarreal: Like Hernandez, dos Santos struggled for his country in 2013, but when he is in form, he is clearly a difference maker for Mexico. Now that he has settled at a club in Spain and is getting regular minutes, he will play a big role for El Tri at the World Cup.
Miguel Herrera, hired on an interim basis in October 2013, was given a simple task: Win the intercontinental playoff and get Mexico to the World Cup. He did that successfully, defeating New Zealand by an aggregate score of 9-3 while using a squad completely composed of domestic-based players. He made waves by calling up mostly Club América players for the playoff, as he was familiar with them as coach of the team, but his gambit was ultimately successful.
Herrera’s temporary appointment capped off a tumultuous two months where four men coached Mexico in World Cup qualifiers. Now that he's been retained as coach for the World Cup itself, Herrera will be expected to not only prepare Mexico for the tournament, but also restore pride to a team that essentially fell at every hurdle in 2013.
WCQ record: 5-2-3, 11pts / 7 GF, 9 GA (fourth place in CONCACAF, winner of CONCACAF-Oceania playoff)
Mexico were nearly knocked out of the playoff spot in the final hexagonal round, but Graham Zusi’s late goal against Panama gave El Tri the reprieve to get them to the playoff against New Zealand. After winning just once against CONCACAF foes at the once-formidable Estadio Azteca, Mexico found their stride against the Kiwis with a commanding 5-1 win to all but seal the tie in the first leg. Altogether in 2013 qualifiers, Mexico won four games – two in the hexagonal along with both playoff matches.
15th appearance
The Mexicans have qualified for their sixth consecutive World Cup, and 15th overall. They have been knocked out in the round of 16 in each of the last five trips, with their best showing all-time coming on home soil in both 1970 and 1986 (quarterfinals). They have never progressed past the group stage in a World Cup held in South America.

For the first time in their history, Honduras have qualified for a second consecutive World Cup. With their latest qualification, another trip to the semifinals at the 2013 Gold Cup, and a good showing at the 2012 Olympics, Honduras will feel confident they can advance to the knockout stage for the first time at a World Cup. They may be one of the biggest underdogs, but could spring a surprise along the way.
WATCH: Espinoza's Story

Roger Espinoza, M, Wigan Athletic: The former Sporting Kansas City midfield warrior has blossomed into an effective two-way player and one of the best in all of CONCACAF. With not only the ability to break up plays in the center of the field but also terrific passing to set up the attack, Espinoza will likely be the key man for the Hondurans in Brazil.
Carlo Costly, F, Guizhou Zhicheng: The striker may not have settled with the Houston Dynamo in MLS, but he has been indispensible for his national team, ranking second in scoring through qualification and scoring in both qualifiers against Mexico this year. Why is he so dangerous? He has signature moves like the Costlina (watch it here).
Emilio Izaguirre, D, Celtic: Although he typically plays at left back, he's at his best going forward and setting up teammates with crosses. He may face a tricky test in the World Cup in balancing defense and attack, but he has featured on the big stage before.
Luis Fernando Suárez, hired in 2011 after more than 10 years coaching in South America, has helped Honduras continue their rise since the last World Cup. A defender during his playing days in Colombia, Suárez has provided the Catrachos with consistency, employing the same 4-4-2 scheme and a regular startin
Suárez also has experience coaching in the World Cup, as he led Ecuador to their best-ever showing in 2006, when they progressed to the knockout stage. Can he do it with another team?
WCQ record: 4-3-3, 15 pts. / 13 GF, 12 GA (3rd place in CONCACAF Hexagonal)
After stumbling through the first half of the Hexagonal, Honduras went unbeaten in their final four games of qualification. The crucial win came in the "Aztecazo," a stunning 2-1 over Mexico at the Estadio Azteca in September which helped them clinch the region's last automatic spot.
Third appearance
The 2014 tournament will be the third trip to the World Cup for Honduras, after qualifying in both 1982 and 2010. They are still seeking their first win in the World Cup, though they have drawn half of their previous games at the tournament. In 2010, they only conceded three goals in the group stage, but they did not score in any of their games.

The Ticos missed out on the 2010 World Cup, but they are back after a strong qualifying campaign and will look to spring a surprise or two in Brazil. With Real Salt Lake forward Álvaro Saborío leading the team in scoring during the CONCACAF Hexagonal, Costa Rica may be flying under the radar, but their five-man backline may prove tough to crack for even the world's best teams.

Bryan Ruiz, F/M, Fulham: The lanky winger may be Costa Rica’s captain, but he has sometimes struggled to elevate his team on the international stage. As the best-known Costa Rican player worldwide, Ruiz will likely be well-marked in games, but if he can be more than a decoy on the field, Costa Rica may have a shot at making it to the knockout stage.
Álvaro Saborío, F, Real Salt Lake: Costa Rica relied heavily on Saborío to provide the goals, and he responded in a big way, bagging eight during the qualification cycle. The challenge will be to ensure the 2013 MLS Latino del Año remains healthy ahead of the World Cup, and that he’s in good form, since he's been a streaky player for Costa Rica.
Joel Campbell, F, Olympiacos: The speedy 21-year-old has been tipped to be the next Costa Rican star, and Arsenal made the leap of faith to sign him. Work-visa issues have meant that Campbell has been on loan around Europe the last three seasons as we await his breakout season. Although many will remember him for his infamous dive against the US in qualifying, he could wind up impressing in Brazil if he can harness his skills.

Jorge Luis Pinto is in his second stint in charge of Costa Rica after being re-hired in 2011. The Colombian has considerable experience coaching on the club front in South America and Costa Rica, and had a stint as boss of his own national team.
Perhaps understanding the need to solidify his defense, Pinto has enjoyed considerable success employing a five-man defense during qualifying. The strategy worked, as los Ticos qualified, beating the USA and Mexico along the way, and moving just outside the Top 30-ranked teams in the world (No. 31 in November 2013).
WCQ record: 5-2-3, 18 pts. / 13 GF, 7 GA (second place in CONCACAF Hexagonal)
Costa Rica won all five matches at home in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, and lost only to Honduras and the United States on the road (the US loss was the now-famous “snow game” at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in March 2013). Although they benefitted from a very poor campaign by Mexico, Costa Rica clearly set themselves apart as the second-best team during the Hex.

Fourth appearance (1990, 2002, 2006, 2014)
After making the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, Costa Rica are back in the tournament after missing out in 2010. Their best showing came in their first World Cup in 1990, when they shocked the world and advanced to the Round of 16. They will need to be at their best, and may need some luck to make a similar run in 2014, but they will certainly be looking to show that CONCACAF quality does not end at the US and Mexico.

Among the most discussed teams to qualify, Belgium return to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years. Featuring a young group stocked with stars, they have the talent to really impress in Brazil. In fact, their exploits in qualifying make them a dark horse candidate to make a deep run.
Eden Hazard, M, Chelsea (pictured left): The attacking midfielder is just 22, but he already has experience leading a team (watch highlight reel), as he helped lead Lille to a Ligue 1 title in France, and has been a fixture at Chelsea. He will be carrying the weight of expectation for what is expected to be a potent Belgian attack.
Vincent Kompany, D, Manchester City: With a young team expected to make waves at the World Cup, it will be up to the captain to keep the squad focused on and off the field. Despite his experience winning titles, Kompany has battled injury problems recently, and if he can’t get fully fit for the tournament, Belgium’s defense and attitude will likely take a big hit.
Romelu Lukaku, F, Everton: Belgium have an absolute embarrassment of riches up top, and 20-year-old Lukaku looks to be the latest to tap into his vast potential. The powerful striker will have the motivation to impress Chelsea boss José Mourinho at the World Cup, and could be the breakout player of the tournament.
Marc Wilmots, hired in May 2012 after serving as assistant coach, has vast World Cup experience, having played in three for Belgium during a successful playing career (1994, 1998, 2002).
Though he doesn't have a great deal of coaching experience, the former attacking midfielder has the respect of his team, and Wilmots has been credited with helping the Belgians deal with rising expectations during the qualifying campaign. The next step is to give an impressive showing in Brazil, with expectations soaring once more for the Red Devils.
WCQ record: 8-0-2, 26 pts. / 18 GF, 4 GA (first place in Europe’s Group A)
Belgium sailed through their qualifying group unbeaten, and impressively beat both Croatia and Serbia on the road. While it can be argued that the Belgians had a favorable group in qualifying, they bucked a generation of poor results, managed to back up the hype with results and qualified for their first major international tournament in 12 years.

12th appearance
Prior to the recent World Cup drought, Belgium featured in six consecutive tournaments from 1982-2002. Their best showing came in 1986, when the squad finished fourth and budding star Enzo Scifo was named best young player of the tournament. In 2002, the Belgians were knocked out in the round of 16 by eventual champions Brazil.

They're not exactly a household name in the soccer world, but the Bosnians have some real stars that can do some major damage in their first-ever World Cup.
But whatever the final results in Brazil, their appearance is sure to help to unite a young nation (only 21 years of independence) still grappling with political and ethnic divisions (listen to this BBC report on what the soccer team's success really means).

Edin Dzeko, F, Manchester City (pictured left): He's the biggest name on the team and he delivered during qualifying with 10 goals, forming a deadly partnership with Vedad Ibisevic (8 goals). This might just be the only way to stop him.
Asmir Begovic, GK, Stoke City: Many consider him a Top 5 'keeper in the English Premier League, not only for his saves (watch highlight reel), but also because he can even score goals (watch it here). He's probably glad he switched to play for No. 16-ranked Bosniainstead of Canada (ranked No. 111).
Zvjezdan Misimovic, M, Guizhou Renhe FC (video right): Dzeko and Ibisevic get all the headlines, but Mismovic is the man pulling the strings (see video). The 31-year-old may be playing in the soccer backwoods of China, but Bosnia can’t do it without him and his all-time caps record proves it.


Safet Susic (right) was a legend long before he took over the reins of the Bosnian national team (watch this video to understand why).
Now a monument can’t be too far behind after what he’s done as coach, transforming BiH (native abbreviation) from a mid-level European nation to one of the Top 20-ranked teams in the world (No. 16 in Oct. 2013).
WCQ record: 8-1-1, 25 pts. / 30 GF, 6 GA (first place in Europe’s Group G)

Bosnia-Herzegovina beat up on the weaker teams (Liechtenstein, Latvia and Lithuania) and more importantly came away with four out of six points from their head-to-head with group favorites Greece. But they still needed a superior goal difference (+24 compared to Greece’s +8) to earn the automatic berth as group winners.

First appearance
The 2014 World Cup is Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first foray in a major international competition, but they’ve come close in recent years. In fact, they managed to advance to a playoff for a berth to both the 2010 World Cup and the Euro 2012 championships, only for Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to oust them on both occasions with goals like this. It's clearly why Bosnians greet him at the airport to chants of "Messi."

After a third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup behind Davor Suker & Co., we're still waiting for Croatia to get back to elite status on the global stage. After a rocky qualifying campaign, they'll hope they can rekindle that flame from their "Golden Generation" in Brazil.
Darijo Srna (D, Shakhtar Donetsk): The captain of the national team, Srna is the team's leader -- their heart and soul. His presence will be critical to help Croatia get through the uphill road that awaits them in Brazil.
WATCH: The best of Niko Kranjcar
Luka Modric (M, Real Madrid): Srna may be the team's emotional leader, but the diminutive Modric is the man who makes the team tick as the anchor of the midfield. Croatia will need their two-way center-mid to be especially inspired to have any success.
Niko Kranjcar (M, Queens Park Rangers): The other midfield playmaker for Croatia. Kranjcar will likely play ahead of Modric on the field, but will combine to help set up the bevy of talents up front for Croatia.
After a lackluster run in qualifying, Croatia turned to former midfielder and captain Niko Kovac on Oct. 16, 2013, and the former member of the Golden Generation led the side in a two-leg playoff victory over Iceland to clinch a ticket to Brazil.
Kovac has high-level experience on both club and national team levels as a player, but his stint as coach of Croatia is his first true foray into the coaching world.
WCQ record: 5-2-3, 17 pts. / 12 GF, 9 GA (second place in UEFA Group A*)
*Won 2-leg playoff vs. Iceland 2-0 on aggregate
You wouldn’t exactly call Croatia’s run to the World Cup memorable. After finishing a distant second to Belgium in the group phase of qualifying, Croatia – with a plus-three goal differential in 10 matches – had a winner-take-all match against Iceland in the second leg of a two-leg series to advance. They were able to eke out a 2-0 win there to advance.
Fourth appearance ('98, '02, '06, '14)
WATCH: Croatia shock world in '98
The Croatians have a short existence since breaking away from Yugoslavia, but they're already on their fourth trip. They turned heads in their first appearance in 1998, finishing third in France. However, they weren’t able to build off that effort in subsequent tournaments in 2002 and 2006, failing to make it out of group play. And in 2010, the Croatians didn’t even make the trip to South Africa, failing to qualify. Expectations won't be high after they eked into Brazil 2014.

It's a World Cup ritual: Every four years the debate begins as to whether England will come close to reliving the glory days of 1966 when they hoisted the trophy. Since then, they’ve been to eight of 11 World Cup tournaments and have yet to reach the final. The hopes aren't high, especially since no European team has ever won the event on South American soil.
Wayne Rooney (F, Manchester United): The striker continues to be England's biggest star. In six World Cup qualifying starts, Rooney scored seven goals and is virtually irreplaceable up top.
WATCH: Wayne Rooney - Goal Machine
Steven Gerrard (M, Liverpool): The experience of the 33-year-old England captain can’t go understated. Patrolling the center of the pitch, the two-way player brings a calming presence, while continuing to produce.
Frank Lampard (M, Chelsea): England's critics will highlight the fact that the Three Lions still rely on the grizzled 35-year-old vetran alongside the aging Gerrard. The English will hope that Lampard's big-game experience -- and his still deadly long-distance shot -- will come through in the pressure cooker of Brazil.

Roy Hodgson has bounced around the coaching ranks, taking the helm of 16 clubs in eight different countries throughout the course of his career. A former defender in his playing days – never at the national level – the native of Croydon, England, has previous World Cup experience, guiding Switzerland to the knockout phase of the 1994 World Cup in the US.
WCQ record: 6-0-4, 22 pts. / 31 GF, 4 GA (1st place in Europe's Group H)
England may have gone undefeated in qualifying with a stunning 31-4 goal differential, but a berth to Brazil still came down to the final two matches, home victories against Poland and Montenegro. They needed every point, edging out Ukraine by a single point to avoid a two-leg playoff.
14th appearance
WATCH: England comes close in '90
It has been nearly 40 years since England claimed the ultimate prize of the World Cup. Since winning it all in 1966, they have failed to make the tournament three times and have never reached the final match – reaching the semifinal round just once, in 1990. Since then, they’ve failed to meet expectations, exiting the tournament no deeper than the quarterfinals.
France haven’t exactly fallen on hard times, but Les Bleus haven’t necessarily lit the world of soccer on fire of late, either. Since the international powerhouse advanced to the finals of the 2006 World Cup, France failed to advance out of the group stage at Euro 2008 or the 2010 World Cup before advancing to the quarters of Euro 2012. And they flirted with disaster this year, falling behind Ukraine 2-0 in the first leg of a qualifying playoff before winning 3-0 in the second leg to earn their fifth straight World Cup berth. The 1998 tournament champions feature a mix of seasoned veterans familiar with success and some very green, yet very talented newcomers.
Franck Ribéry, F/F, Bayern Munich (pictured left): Recognized as France’s best player and the heir apparent to former Les Bleus talisman Zinédine Zidane. He’s scored 16 goals for France and recently led his club to the UEFA Champions League title. He even went so far as to say he would end the duopoly that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have over the UEFA Player of the Year award, saying he would be the victor this season.
Olivier Giroud, F, Arsenal: The big, physical striker has a flare for the dramatic, claiming France “were ready to die on the pitch” in the second leg of the WCQ playoff against Ukraine. Despite just two goals in qualifying, his club coach believes he’s one of the best strikers in the English Premier League.
Mathieu Valbuena, M, Marseille: The French playmaker seems to transform Les Bleus when he’s on the pitch. He is also, apparently, very short.
Didier Deschamps (right) was a player for France during their last World Cup triumph in 1998 on their home turf. He also became the youngest-ever captain to lead a team to the UEFA Champions League title when he did it with Marseille in 1993. Now he’s the manager tasked with leading Les Bleus back to the world’s top spot, a position he very nearly lost when his side narrowly scraped by Ukraine in a playoff qualifier. But after beating Ukraine 3-0 in the second leg on Nov. 19, he said he experienced the “magic of football.”
WCQ record: 5-2-1, 17 pts. / 15 GF, 6 GA (second place in Europe’s Group I, beat Ukraine in playoff)
They didn’t make it easy on themselves, for certain. A loss to Spain (1-0 on March 26, 2012) and then a scoreless draw against lowly Georgia on Sept. 6 put France in a tentative spot as qualification drew to a close in their tough group. And then in a two-game playoff against Ukraine, Les Bleus first fell behind 2-0 after the first leg in Kyiv before a miraculous 3-0 win in Paris on Nov. 19 put them through to the World Cup.
14th appearance
France’s biggest triumph came in 1998 on their home soil when Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane led them to glory, beating Brazil 3-0 in the championship game. That tournament also featured a drama-filled quarterfinal victory against Italy that was decided in penalties. France had another famous match against Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, an Italian win also on penalties made perhaps more famous, or infamous, for a certain head butt. France placed fourth in both 1982 and ’86 and third in ’58. Their 2010 World Cup ended in the group stage amid controversy.

They haven’t won it all since 1990, and the German national team is feeling big-time pressure to take home a trophy. The expectations are especially high in 2014, and for good reason. A loaded roster and success at the club level, with the Bundesliga sending two teams to the most recent UEFA Champions League final, have the soccer-crazed country thinking big for Brazil.
Mesut Özil, M, Arsenal (pictured left): He’s the star among the stars, the central figure in the influx of young stars in German football and the piece that makes the side go. The lively playmaker and his lightening bolt for a left foot leads the team with 10 assists and is tied for second with five goals in 2013. And if his record transfer deal to Arsenal is any indication, Germany should be just fine.
Marco Reus, M, Borussia Dortmund: Considered the top German player in the Bundesliga, Dortmund’s young talent led the way for Germany with seven goals and was tied for second on the team with five assists. The young playmaker’s talents are not only good for club and country but inspire videos like this.
Mario Götze, M, Bayern Munich: The Cain to Reus’ Abel. Whatever his country’s Bundesliga fans may think of him, Götze completes the young attacking trio that has everyone raving about Germany’s possibilities of raising a trophy at the end of the World Cup. Five goals and five assists in 2013 show his versatility.
Manuel Neuer, GK, Bayern Munich: He’s not just one of the top goalkeepers in the world (10 goals alLöwed in 10 WCQ games), who sometimes wears a four-fingered glove, but he’s also caught the acting bug.
Joachim “Jogi” Löw (right) took over after serving as the top assistant under previous coach Jurgen Klinsmann. While Klinsmann was the master motivator, Löw was considered the tactical genius and has been credited with getting the most out of the next generation of young German talent and transforming the team’s style into an exciting, attacking variety while holding onto some trademark efficiency.
But now the pressure is on, and now Löw is expected to turn all those goals (36 in 10 WCQs) into hardware.
WCQ record: 9-0-1, 28 pts. / 36 GF, 10 GA (first place in Europe’s Group C)
Germany’s biggest stumbling block was a 4-4 draw in Berlin against Sweden, Group C’s second-place team, on Oct. 16 of last year. But nine wins, including a 5-3 revenge victory over Sweden on their home turf on Oct. 15, gave Germany the easy group victory by eight points.
18th appearance
Germany are one of the most decorated international teams in the world, having won three World Cups (1954, 1974, 1990), finished runners-up four times and third place four times. The sting of Germany’s 1-0 loss to eventual Cup champions Spain in the 2010 semifinals still lingers; marking the first time since 1982 that the team with the highest goal differential (16 GF, 5 GA) in the tournament didn’t win it all.

The team that is seldom given a chance in international tournaments, and yet one that's bucked the odds in the past, is back once again. Greece have qualified for their second consecutive World Cup, and will be looking to qualify for the knockout stage for the first time. They may not be the neutrals' choice, but they can't be counted out.
Kostas Mitroglou, F, Olympiacos (at left): The 25-year-old is in fine form at the moment, and has reportedly become a transfer target for several English clubs. Born in Greece but raised in Germany, Mitroglou led the Greeks in scoring during qualification, including three goals in the playoff games against Romania.
Georgios Karagounis, M, Fulham: Brazil 2014 will surely be the last time on the international stage for the 36-year-old, who has been a fixture on the national team since 1999. The captain has shown a penchant for raising his game with his country in the past, and Greece will need him to have a big tournament once again.
Orestis Karnezis, GK, Granada: When a team is so reliant on defense to get results, a quality goalkeeper is even more important, and Karnezis featured in every match for Greece during qualification (see video scouting report). The 28-year-old is largely untested and rarely getting a game on the club front, however, so he will need to be at his very best to give Greece hope of advancing in Brazil.

Fernando Santos, hired July 1, 2010, had big shoes to fill in charge of Greece following the successful tenure of Otto Rehhagel, who led them to their historic Euro 2004 title. Santos has spent his entire coaching career in his native Portugal and Greece, coaching Greek club sides AEK Athens, Panathinaikos, and PAOK prior to his appointment as national team boss.
Though he couldn't replicate Rehhagel's Euro triumph, he did lead Greece to a quarterfinal run at Euro 2012. While the team still prioritizes defense, they seem to score somewhat more easily under Santos.
WCQ record: 8-1-1, 25 pts. / 12 GF, 4 GA (second place in Europe's Group G, defeated Romania in playoff)
The Greeks finished level on points with Bosnia-Herzegovina atop their qualifying group with identical records, but finished second by virtue of goal difference. That meant they had to go to one of the European playoffs, where they faced Romania, and dominated them in both legs, winning 4-2 on aggregate. Given Greece's reputation as a goal-shy side, their 3-1 win in the first leg of the playoff turned heads.
Third appearance

Greece have qualified for consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history. They have not advanced past the group stage in their previous two appearances, in 1994 and 2010, but they did notch their first World Cup win in South Africa, defeating Nigeria 2-1.

After winning the World Cup in 2006, the Italians fell flat in 2010, not even making it out of the group phase in South Africa. Now under new coach Cesare Prandelli, Italy will look to show why they've always been a force to be reckoned with on the biggest stage.
Gianluigi Buffon (GK, Juventus): The 35-year-old goalkeeper’s better days are behind him, but he was the No. 1 choice for the Azzurri as they topped their qualifying group. He is one of two lone players left from the 2006 championship side.
WATCH: Noel Gallagher quizzes Super Mario
Mario Balotelli (F, AC Milan): The hot-tempered striker has established himself as the Italians' reference point in attack. Teams will continue to try and get under his skin, but as long as he stays on the field, he's capable of the magical play to decide a game.
Pablo Osvaldo (M, Southampton): The Argentine-born attacker has emerged during qualifying play, scoring four goals in seven matches. Can be the Italians' X factor in Brazil.
Cesare Prandelli, hired on May 30, 2010, only took over the team coached by Marcello Lippi after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the Italians failed to qualify to the knockout round.
Prandelli, a midfielder in his playing days for Cremonese, Atalanta and Juventus, has brought a more daring, attack-minded style to the Italian side, reminiscent of his Fiorentina teams between 2005 and 2010.
WCQ record: 6-0-4 22 pts. / 19 GF, 9 GA (First place in Europe's Group B)
Italy made it through to the World Cup with relative ease, outlasting the field in their group by six points. They jumped out ahead of the field by winning four of their first five contests and then closed out their undefeated qualifying campaign with a 2-0-3 record in their last five.
18th appearance
The Azzurri have made it to the World Cup final six times, hoisting the Cup on four occasions – in 1934, ’38, ’82 and 2006. They were runners up in 1970 and 1994. They have also made it to the semifinals in two other tournaments – 1978 and 1990 – but failed to advance.
After the championship in 2006, Italy had a terrible showing in 2010 in South Africa, getting bounced in the group phase, finishing 26th overall among the 32 participants.

Brilliant Orange: international soccer's oldest and most beautiful enigma – and, now that Spain have overcome their own decades-long mental block, surely the world's most talented underachievers.
Small but studiously efficient at producing smart, technical players and seductive tactical concepts, the Netherlands are the last remaining member of the game's traditional aristocracy yet to claim a World Cup trophy.
They did reach the third championship final in their illustrious history at South Africa 2010, however, warding off the uniquely Dutch penchant for self-destructiveness well enough to give them real hope of another deep run in Brazil, especially after an imperious march through UEFA qualifying that propelled them to No. 8 in the October 2013 edition of the FIFA World Rankings.

Robin van Persie, F, Manchester United (pictured left): A world superstar at the top of his game, RVP was not only deadly in front of net with 11 goals in this qualification cycle, he's also been durable, featuring in nine of Die Oranje's 10 matches and earning the captain's armband after struggling for consistent fitness earlier in his career.
Rafael van der Vaart, M, Hamburg: To some, he's a playmaking visionary of the highest class, while others see him as a classic “luxury player,” a phrase that dogged him during his time in the English Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur. The 30-year-old may not always go the full 90 minutes, but he can weave magic at any moment, as his five goals in 370 qualifying minutes would suggest.
Arjen Robben, M, Bayern Munich: The latest and greatest of the Dutch flying winger archetype, Robben is quick, cerebral and utterly ruthless. He slices and dices opposing defenders – and aggravates millions of fans with his gamesmanship.


Louis van Gaal oversaw the Netherlands' startling failure to reach Japan/Korea 2002, but the well-traveled manager is riding high in his second stint in charge of his homeland's side.
Though not universally loved, the 62-year-old carries a distinguished resume with gigs in charge of Ajax, FC Barcelona, AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich. And he has Die Oranje – a legendarily quarrelsome bunch over the decades – playing soccer that's both attractive and effective.
WCQ record: 9-0-1, 28 pts. / 34 GF, 5 GA (1st place in Europe’s Group D)
No team in Europe – perhaps no one in the world – were more dominant on the road to Brazil than the Dutch. Their goal differential was the best on the continent and their points total was only matched in their region by Germany's similarly confident cruise through UEFA qualifying.
The only blip on their record was a 2-2 draw at Estonia in September, where it took an injury-time penalty kick from van Persie to escape Tallinn with a point. The Netherlands finished 2013 on a 12-game unbeaten run.

Ninth appearance
The Netherlands are such a powerhouse that the occasions on which they miss out on the World Cup in the modern era are more notable than their successful qualifications. A down period in the 1980s saw them miss out on both Spain '82 and Mexico '86 before returning to glory with a title run at the 1988 European Championships, their only major trophy to date. They reached the World Cup final in 1974, 1978 and 2010 and were unlucky to fall at the semifinal stage in 1998.

If Portugal are going to ever make a run at the World Cup, the 2014 tournament is perhaps their best chance to finally join an exclusive list of eight countries which have claimed the world title. With the best player the country has ever produced -- Cristiano Ronaldo -- at the very top of his game, the stars may finally align. And Ronaldo will be plenty motivated -- a World Cup title would lift him above Argentina's Lionel Messi in the eternal debate about the No. 1 player in the world.
WATCH: The Ronaldo Story
Cristiano Ronaldo (F, Real Madrid): Portugal's superstar, captain and goalscorer. He single-handedly punched his country's ticket to the World Cup, scoring all four of his team's goals in an aggregate-goal playoff win over Sweden.
Fábio Coentrão (D, Real Madrid): A steady defender and key cog on a backline that is often overshadowed by the attacking prowess of Ronaldo.
Nani (F, Manchester United): Although he can't find consistent playing time in England, he's a weapon for his national team. With the opposition keying on Ronaldo, the expert dribbler will have space to do damage.

Paulo Bento, hired on Sept. 20, 2010, took over a team with plenty of potential that was still struggling to find its way. Under his tutelage, Portugal have registered some promising results: an impressive 4-0 win over Spain and a semifinal appearance in Euro 2012.
Bento, a former defensive midfielder who collected 35 caps with the Portuguese national team from 1999-2002, has coached one other team – Sporting Club de Portugal, where he finished his playing career – prior to making the jump to the national team.
WCQ record: 6-3-1, 21 pts. / 20 GF, 9 GA (second place in Europe's Group F)
WATCH: Epic Sweden-Portugal 2nd leg
After finishing in second place in their group -- Russia grabbed the top spot -- Portugal faced a home-and-home aggregate goal series against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden. The two-leg series resulted in one of the most memorable showdowns of all-time. Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo scored all the goals in the series, with Portugal pulling it out 4-2 on aggregate.
Sixth appearance
Portugal weren't much of a World Cup contender in the 1900s, making it to just two tournaments – finishing third in 1966 and 17th in 1986. However, since the turn of the century and with the emergence of talents like Luís Figo and Ronaldo, the Portuguese have been a mainstay, qualifying for three straight tournaments, including a fourth-place finish in 2006.

 Competitive, if unspectacular” is the conventional wisdom on the current Russia side. But the nation's soccer history is full of quirky characters and enigmatic teams, including the swashbuckling edition that nearly won the 2008 European Championship with a flowing attack fostered by Dutch manager Guus Hiddink.
The future looms large for Russia in 2014, with a positive display in Brazil seen as an important step in the countdown to their own hosting of the 2018 event.

Igor Denisov, M, Dynamo Moscow (at left): A strong-willed, combustible character, Russia's captain can anchor a midfield like few others in Europe when he's focused and fit.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov, F, Zenit St. Petersburg: One of the top finishers in Russian history, the veteran led his country in scoring during 2014 qualification A charismatic character who earned a rare honor as one of the torchbearers for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Sergei Ignashevich, D, CSKA Moscow: At age 34, he's getting a bit long in the tooth, but the veteran center back remains important to the cause as a calming influence at the heart of defense.
Fabio Capello (at right) surely did not relish the disappointing performance of his England team at the 2010 World Cup, yet the well-traveled Italian has rebounded in some style with an efficient renewal of a Russian team which was stunned to miss out on the tournament in South Africa.
Capello's teams are built on discipline, diligence and organized defending, and sure enough, Russia conceded just five goals in 10 qualifiers. His next challenge: Conjure up enough attacking dynamism to give the team a chance to make real noise in Brazil.
WCQ record: 7-2-1, 22 pts. / 20 GF, 5 GA (first place in Europe’s Group F)
Russia edged Group F favorites Portugal to the top spot by one point, overcoming back-to-back 1-0 road losses to Northern Ireland and Portugal over the summer by virtue of their perfect (5-0) record on home soil.

Ninth appearance
Their trip to Brazil ends a decade-plus World Cup drought for the Eastern Europeans, who lost out to Japan and Belgium in the group stage in 2002. The country's best finish was a fourth-place run in 1966 under their former identity as the USSR.

Spain will attempt to be the first country to win consecutive World Cups since Brazil in 1962, and with no European team ever winning in South America, that quest does not look easy. Still, as not only the reigning World Cup champions but also current European champions, Spain have shown they can go on a major international tournament winning streak. Perhaps incredibly, the buzz heading into Brazil 2014 has La Furia Roja flying under the radar just a bit.
Xavi, M, Barcelona: The midfield maestro has been instrumental for Spain’s success in recent years, and featured in seven of eight qualifiers. Although he has racked up many miles in his career, his passing will be key to unlocking opponents that frequently put 10 men behind the ball.
Sergio Ramos, D, Real Madrid: A fixture on the field for the Spanish during qualification, Ramos has shown the ability to deal with pressure in the biggest moments and chips in with goals from time to time. Will still only be 28 at the World Cup, and likely has several good years ahead in his career.
Cesc Fabregas, MF, Barcelona: With Barcelona’s current playing style better fitting the midfielder’s skills, and with Spain reliant on midfielders to provide the goals, Fabregas will likely play a big part for his country if they are to repeat as champions.
Vicente del Bosque, hired in 2008 to replace Luis Aragonés, had considerable expectations to live up to after his predecessor led the team to the 2008 European Championship title. Since then, del Bosque has led the country to the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro title. Though many national teams and coaches don’t like to stay more than one World Cup cycle, he recently signed a contract extension to remain at the helm until 2016.
WCQ record: 6-0-2, 20 points / 14 GF, 3 GA (first place in Europe’s Group I)
Spain sailed through qualification in their group, the smallest in UEFA, going unbeaten with just two draws (both at home). Although they were the favorites to finish atop their group, they did have to contend with France in order to avoid a playoff, and did so successfully. Altogether, they allowed the fewest goals of any European team in qualification.
14th appearance
The champions have qualified for the last 10 World Cups and will look to add another star to their crest in Brazil. Prior to their 2010 triumph, Spain had a reputation as a talented team that could not prevail in the big occasions, and their previous best showing had been fourth place in 1950, also held in Brazil. Still, with their current generation of players and track record built over the last decade, Spain must still be considered among the favorites this time around.

It all started in 2002 when the Switzerland Under-17 national team won the European Championship, continued with another U-17 title in 2009 and an appearance in the U-21 final of the European Championship in 2011. They called it the “Little Swiss Miracle,” and it could be transferring to the senior team for the 2014 World Cup. The youthful and confident Swiss certainly have been impressive of late, going unbeaten in their 10 qualifying games – albeit against less than stellar competition – to jump all the way to a FIFA world ranking of eighth and become one of the seeded teams for the Dec. 6 World Cup draw. A friendly victory over hosts Brazil in August probably didn’t hurt that ranking.
Xherdan Shaqiri, M, Bayern Munich (pictured left): The left-footed, Kosovo-born bulldog has been a stalwart off the bench for his club and one of the leaders for his country as a key piece in their youth academy’s recent success. For Switzerland, his on-field tenacity has worn off on his countrymen, giving them a reputation as a tough, feisty side.
Granit Xhaka, M, Borussia Mönchengladbach: There’s a healthy debate over whether Xhaka or Shaqiri is Switzerland’s top player. And while his international career hasn’t always been peaches and cream with Switzerland, the Albanian-born midfielder has become quite the star for the Rossocrociati. He’s also become a target for some club giants.
Gökhan Inler, M, Napoli: Born in Turkey, Inler is another in a handful of talented immigrants making their mark on the Switzerland soccer landscape. Long rumored to be a target of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, Inler had a funny way of showing his loyalty for his club.
He’ll be leaving his post after the World Cup, but 64-year-old Ottmar Hitzfeld (right) can now add the achievement of developing Switzerland’s pool of young talent to his long list of accomplishments. The German native and former Bundesliga coach also led the Swiss to the 2010 World Cup, where they failed to advance out of pool play despite defeating eventual champion Spain, 1-0.
WCQ record: 7-3-0, 24 pts. / 17 GF, 6 GA (first place in Europe’s Group E)
It wasn’t the strongest group in Europe – consisting of Iceland, the second-place team, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus – but Switzerland did little wrong in getting through to their top spot. They beat Iceland 2-0 in Reykjavik on Oct. 16 last year before playing them to an exciting 4-4 draw in Berne on June 9. They then beat Norway (2-0, Oct. 9), Albania (2-1, Oct. 10) and Slovenia (1-0, Oct. 15) to close out qualifying.
10th appearance
Despite a 1-0 victory over eventual 2010 World Cup champions Spain in their final group-stage game, Switzerland finished third in their group and failed to advance to the knockout round thanks to a 1-0 loss to Chile and scoreless draw against Honduras in earlier games. Their 2006 tournament, which marked a return to the World Cup after failing to qualify for the previous two, ended in bitter disappointment in the round of 16 with a loss to Ukraine on penalty kicks (3-0), after finishing atop their group. Their 1994 tournament, following a 28-year drought, also ended in the round of 16. The Swiss were much more successful in the tournament’s early years, with quarterfinal runs in 1934, ’38 and ’54.

It almost seems unfair: The five-time World Cup winners and perpetual title contenders finally get to host the event in their own big, passionate, chaotic backyard for the first time in well more than half a century.
After tasting success with a 2013 Confederations Cup trophy, the current squad is eager to prove it can reach the heights of its illustrious forebears and will be roared forward by the home fans of a truly soccer-obsessed country.

Neymar Jr., F, FC Barcelona (pictured left): The hottest young superstar off the Brazilian assembly line of attacking talent presently shares the dazzling Barça marquee with global icon Lionel Messi after a $79 million summer transfer from Santos.
Thiago Silva, D, Paris Saint-Germain: Viewed by many as the best defender in the world, the steady center back transferred from AC Milan to France's nouveau riche club in a $56.8 million move last summer and is reportedly making one of the highest salaries in the global game.
Oscar, M, Chelsea: A playmaker to watch this summer. A fluid, elusive player both on and off the ball, but can he seize the reins in truly massive moments?
Luiz Felipe Scolari, or “Felipão” (“Big Phil”) as he is known far and wide, is arguably the biggest character on Brazil's colorful soccer landscape as he guides the Seleção into this tournament for the second time.
A demonstrative, no-nonsense and extremely well-traveled type, Scolari led the boys in yellow to their last World Cup triumph in 2002 but has even less margin for error this time amid immense domestic pressure – and fierce competition from rivals near and far.
Automatic qualification as hosts. 
19th appearance
World Cups and Brazil go together like samba and drums, or perhaps cachaça, sugar and lime. The South Americans hardly ever miss a chance to vie for top honors on the world's biggest stage and have danced home with the top prize in 1958, 1962 and 1970 (the era of the great Pelé), then returned to greatness with championship runs at USA 1994 and Korea/Japan 2002..

A proverbial favorite seemingly at every World Cup, Argentina boast enough quality from front to back to pull off the big Brazilian nightmare that would be winning the World Cup next summer. Talent has not always matched expectations, however, as the Albiceleste have disappointingly and surprisingly failed to advance past the quarterfinals since 1990.
Leo Messi, F, Barcelona: Arguably the best player in the world right now, Messi will be counted upon to lead a talented Argentina team to a World Cup title. The 26-year-old with an incredible knack for scoring and playmaking may already have more than enough hardware, but claiming a winner’s medal would add to the argument that he is one of the best to ever lace them up.
Gonzalo Higuaín, F, Napoli: Messi will undoubtedly shoulder much of the offensive load, but Higuaín will need to do his best to help alleviate that responsibility much in the same way he did during qualifying. Higuaín added nine goals to the Argentine captain’s 10, providing a goal-scoring threat that did not allow for opposing defenses to solely zero in on Messi.
Sergio Romero, GK, AS Monaco: After watching from the sidelines in Argentina’s first two qualifiers, Romero won the starting job and never looked back. He started the remaining 14 games for Argentina and posted four shutouts at a position the Albiceleste have historically struggled to fill.
Alejandro Sabella is the latest in a laundry list of managers hoping to guide Argentina back to the promised land. Hired on Dec. 16, 2011, after the firing of Sergio Batista, Sabella stepped in and helped the Albiceleste navigate through qualifying successfully and with relative ease.
The 59-year-old Argentine spent time at several clubs, including Leeds United and River Plate, during his 15-year playing career but his coaching resume is significantly shorter. Sabella managed Estudiantes de La Plata in his native Argentina from 2009-11 before being handed the national team job.
WCQ record: 9-2-5, 32 pts. / 35 GF, 15 GA (1st place in South America)
With no Brazil to worry about, Argentina did as many expected and took the top spot in CONMEBOL qualifying. They unsurprisingly had the most productive offense in the region, scoring 35 goals, and the defense conceded the second-lowest goal total with 15. Not too shabby.

16th appearance
What’s a World Cup without Argentina? The Albiceleste booked their 11th straight trip to the World Cup finals and 16th overall by topping the nine-team South American table. Now, they will set their sights on winning a third World Cup trophy on its most bitter rival’s home soil -- and a first since Diego Maradona led them to glory back in 1986.

Make it two in a row for Chile. La Roja are heading to their second straight World Cup after a qualifying campaign that had its fare shares of highs and lows, including a coaching change, but their recent form seems to indicate that they are peaking at just the right time. 
Alexis Sánchez, F, Barcelona: A technically gifted winger who is usually tasked with leading the attack, Sánchez provided four goals in qualifying and was a constant threat for a Chile side that had the second-highest scoring offense in CONMEBOL this cycle. 
Arturo Vidal, M, Juventus: The 26-year-old is a staple in Chile’s midfield and one that can contribute on both sides off the ball, a trait that helped out the Chileans in qualifying. His versatility is an added bonus as is his veteran leadership.
Claudio Bravo, GK, Real Sociedad: Bravo is as experienced a player as Chile currently has and that is why he is the team’s captain. If not for the seasoned goalkeeper, Chile likely would have surrendered more than the 25 goals they conceded in qualifying.

Jorge Sampaoli’s first international foray has so far proved to be a successful one. Sampaoli was hired on Dec. 3, 2012 after Chile sustained some mixed results in qualifying, and he led La Roja to an impressive 5-1-1- record in their final seven qualifiers to claim third place in CONMEBOL.
A former defensive midfielder, Sampaoli had coached various clubs throughout South America before being chosen as Chile’s manager. He was most recently at the helm of Universidad de Chile, but has also coached Ecuadorian side Emelec and Peruvian outfit Sporting Cristal.
WCQ record: 9-6-1, 28 pts. / 29 GF, 25 GA (3rd place in South America)
After a topsy-turvy start, Chile finished qualifying in impressive form. They scored more goals in South America than anyone not named Argentina, but their defense was a bit suspect and could use some more fine-tuning ahead of their trip to Brazil.

Nonth appearance
The Chileans have reached consecutive World Cups for the first time since doing so back in 1962 – when they earned third place on home soil – and 1966. They enjoyed a strong performance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, reaching the round of 16, and they could be poised to surpass that achievement when they take their relatively short trip to Brazil next summer.

After a 15-year hiatus that surely seemed a lot longer, Colombia are back in international soccer’s most prestigious competition. The Cafeteros are making their way back to a World Cup for the first time since 1998 and do so with a squad that is rich with dynamic attacking talent and could serve as a tournament dark horse. 
Radamel Falcao, F, AS Monaco: As prolific a goalscorer as there is in the world right now, Falcao will spearhead Colombia’s attack. The lethal finisher netted nine times in qualifying, and will be tasked with the scoring burden against teams who will primarily be aiming to shut him down.
James Rodríguez, M, AS Monaco: Rodriguez may still be young at the tender age of 22, but he looked anything but that during recent games. The midfielder showcased his good technical skills and creativity in qualifying, assets that make him a dangerous weapon in Colombia’s dynamic attack.
Mario Yepes, D, Atalanta: Despite turning 38 in January, Yepes is impressively still going strong. The Cafeteros captain anchored the backline that proved difficult to beat in qualifying, using his leadership, wealth of experience and solid defending skills to stymie opponents.
José Pekerman, hired as head coach of Colombia in January 2012, has worked his magic and guided the Cafeteros to their first World Cup in more than a decade. Making his job even more impressive is the fashion in which Colombia qualified, as the team looked strong defensively and dynamic and explosive in the attack.
Another plus for Pekerman, a 64-year-old Argentine who was a midfielder in his playing days, is that he has previous World Cup experience as a coach. He was at the helm of Argentina in 2006 when the albiceleste reached the quarterfinals, and since then has managed Mexican clubs Toluca and Tigres UANL.
WCQ record: 9-4-3, 30 pts. / 27 GF, 13 GA (second place in South America)
Colombia fell just short of finishing atop the CONMEBOL standings, two points shy of Argentina. But the Cafeteros had the stingiest defense in South American qualifying, allowing just 13 goals, and that combined with their explosive offense allowed for rather smooth (and impressive) sailing to Brazil.

Fifth appearance
The Colombians are making their much-awaited return to the World Cup after last participating in France 1998. There is a real buzz around this team back home, primarily because of the exciting and dynamic brand of soccer the team plays under Pekerman.

Long one of South America's bit players, Ecuador have become a recognized force and have now booked their third World Cup berth, all three of them earned over the last 12 years.
They also carry heavy hearts into the tournament after the sudden passing of charismatic striker Christian “Chucho” Benitez in July due to cardiac arrest while with his Qatari club El Jaish. His No. 11 jersey has been retired by La Tri (short for La Tricolor, in reference to Ecuador's colors of gold, blue and red).

Felipe Caicedo, FW, Lokomotiv Moscow: Ecuador's leading scorer in qualifying with seven goals in nine games. The powerful striker is nicknamed “Rocky” thanks to his love of the boxing blockbusters and has shown suitable tenaciousness despite bouncing around to six European clubs in the past eight years.
Walter Ayovi, MF, Pachuca: La Tri's captain (left) and ironman, the left-sided midfielder was the only player to take part in every minute of the marathon qualifying campaign and has drawn the interest of MLS clubs. His experience in both of Ecuador's previous World Cups will be valuable in Brazil.
Antonio Valencia, MF, Manchester United: He's been at turns dazzling and invisible during his time with the English Premier League giants. Still, the winger remains capable of game-changing performances at even the highest levels of the game.

Reinaldo Rueda is a veteran tactician who earned solid results with the youth and senior national teams of his native Colombia, then added another impressive line to his resume by leading Honduras to South Africa 2010, their first World Cup in 28 years.
It says much about Ecuador's passion for the game that his achievements with La Tri in the current cycle earned the personal thanks of president Rafael Correa, who praised his team's “unity, solidarity and delivery” on the road to Brazil. Colombians are surely delighted to note that one of their own has been in charge of all three of neighboring Ecuador's World Cup campaigns.
WCQ record: 7-5-4 / 20 GF, 16 GA (4th place in South America)
La Tri did not win a single road match during CONMEBOL qualification. But they rode their commanding home-field advantage in Quito, where visitors' lungs gasp some 9,350 feet above sea level (by comparison, lofty Denver sits at 5,280), to a 7-0-1 mark at Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa. Combined with a momentous 1-1 road draw at Uruguay on Sept. 11, that was enough to push them into the continent's final automatic World Cup berth.

3rd appearance
After many years of struggle in search of the world's biggest stage, the 21st century has smiled on Ecuadorian soccer. Back-to-back trips to Japan/Korea 2002 and Germany 2006 were just reward for that long drought and their loyal fans will have a much shorter journey this time around.

For the second consecutive World Cup cycle, Uruguay had to rely on an intercontinental playoff to make it to the big dance. But despite their struggles during South American qualifying, the Charruas are still one of the most experienced and talented teams in the world and capable of making a deep run just as they did nearly four years ago in South Africa. 
Luis Suarez: Hero or Villain?
Luis Suárez, F, Liverpool: The polarizing yet prolific striker was the top goal-scorer in South America, netting 11 times for a Uruguay team that needed every single one of his goals given its leaky defense. Vital piece.
Edinson Cavani, F, Paris Saint-Germain: With Diego Forlán on the decline, Cavani stepped up in a big way by providing another goalscoring threat for La Celeste. The skillful PSG striker scored six goals in CONMBEOL qualifying, stepping up in the playoff first leg vs. Jordan (watch below).
Diego Lugano, D, West Bromwich Albion: There is no denying Uruguay’s defense struggled, but without their captain and central defender things probably would have been substantially worse. Lugano, who is inching closer to 100 caps, brought his usual aerial dominance and overall defensive quality while chipping in offensively with two goals.

Óscar Washington Tabárez, named head coach of Uruguay in 2006, did such an impressive job during the last World Cup that the Uruguayan FA kept him on for a second term despite the notion that international teams tend to struggle when guided by the same person for more than four years.
The longest-tenured international coach out of the 10 CONMEBOL nations, Tabárez has a laundry list of teams he has managed. The 66-year-old Uruguayan, who was a defender in his playing days, has been at the helm of big clubs like AC Milan and Boca Juniors, to name a couple.
WCQ record: 7-5-4, 25 pts. / 25 GF, 25 GA (fifth place in South America); 1-0-1 in playoff vs. Jordan / 5 GF, 0 GA
Uruguay may have cruised past Jordan to secure their berth in Brazil, but the Charruas had some serious troubles in CONMEBOL qualifying despite having a very talented roster. They let up as many goals as they scored and lacked consistency throughout the campaign.

12th appearance
The two-time world champions are headed to their second straight World Cup and third out of the last four editions. If they can piece together the same type of strong performances that they had in South Africa en route to finishing in fourth place in 2010, the Uruguayans are talented enough to be a very dangerous darkhorse in this tournament.

After making a splash in their first appearance in the World Cup in more than 30 years, making it out of the group phase in 2006 in Germany, the Aussies were bounced in group play in 2010. They hope to get back on track in Brazil in 2014 after recently jettisoning their coach after a trying qualification campaign.
Tim Cahill, MF, New York Red Bulls (pictured right): Australia’s heart and sole in the midfield, Cahill has a knack to find the net when his club needs it the most. The same goes for country after he added three goals in eight starts during WCQing.
Lucas Neill, DEF, Omiya Ardija: Neill remains a cog on the backline for his nation. He is the glue that keeps together a team that will need to withstand a lot of pressure as the competition ratchets up come World Cup time.
Brett Holman, MF, Al Nasr: A great possession and two-way player, Holman will need to work with Cahill and the attacking players to find a way to put pressure on opposing backlines. He netted a pair of goals in South Africa in 2010 and could use that experience to put in a similar performance in Brazil.
Ange Postecoglou took over for Holger Osieck on Oct. 23, 2013, following consecutive 6-0 defeats to Germany and France. Postecoglou, a former player for the Australian national team (four caps in 1986), has no previous national team coaching experience.
WCQ record: 3-4-1, 13 pts. / 12 GF, 7 GA (2nd place in AFC Group B)
Australia didn't make qualifying for the 2014 World Cup easy on themselves. Beginning the final round of qualifying matches, the Aussies drew against Oman and Japan before losing to Jordan. Things looked bleak, but Australia won three matches and drew two more to secure a spot in the tournament.
4th appearance
Australia is beginning to solidify themselves as a regular fixture in the World Cup. When they touch down in Brazil in 2014, it will be their third consecutive appearance, fourth overall. Now can they get back to the Round of 16 (or mabe even beyond)?

Iran may not necessarily be an Asian power on the level of Japan, South Korea or Australia, but they certainly matched the confederation’s power trio en route to booking their place in Brazil.
For the fourth time in their history, the Iranians are set to compete on the sport’s biggest stage, and should be encouraged by the fact that they lost just two games during World Cup qualifying. Led by manager Carlos Quieroz, Iran will hope to get out of the group stage for the first time in their history and build on their lone World Cup victory, which came against the United States in 1998.
Javad Nekounam, M, Esteghlal FC (pictured left): The Iranian captain and owner of 140 caps led the side with six World Cup qualifying goals and came up just short in his chase for the AFC Player of the Year award. He made his international name with La Liga side Osasuna, who lost out on the powerful midfielder after six years following a protracted transfer saga.
Reza Ghoochannejhad, F, Standard Liege: The Iranian-Dutch striker joined up with his birth nation in late 2012 and has seven goals in his first nine appearances to emerge as one of the stars of the squad. But is he a potential savior? Some are already saddling the 26-year-old with those lofty expectations.

Jalal Hosseini, D, Persepolis: The veteran center back has been a lock in central defense since 2007 and helped Iran allow just seven goals in 16 qualifying matches. Can Hosseini help Iran continue that form in Brazil?
Carlos Queiroz (right) is about as well traveled as they come in international management, and he finds himself at the helm of Iran after leading Portugal in South Africa.
Queiroz has introduced a number of dual nationals to the squad, most notably Ghoochannejhad, as Iran blew through qualifying and solidified themselves as a group-phase darkhorse. He's lost just four games in 32 so far with the Persian Stars, but the World Cup will pose a much stiffer challenge.
On a completely different note, the Portuguese boss made headlines this summer after South Korea claimed he made an "obscene gesture" toward their bench.
WCQ record: 10-4-2, 16 pts. / 30 GF, 7 GA (first place Asian Football Confederation Group A)
South Korea were the favorite in Group A, but it was the Iranians who topped the table after allowing just two goals in eight matches. The question mark is goalscoring, as their eight goals scored were by far the fewest among Asia's World Cup qualifiers. Still, Iran have reason to believe their fourth World Cup appearance will be their most rewarding.

Fourth appearance
Iran's shining World Cup moment came during France 1998 when they defeated the United States, 2-1, in a match that garnered international interest because of the political situation between the two countries. Apart from that result, the Persian Stars have failed to reach the group phase in all three of their previous trips (Argentina 1978, France 1998 and Germany 2006), and have just two draws to call their own in nine World Cup matches.


Japan became the first team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, as they did in 2006 and 2010. Making their fifth consecutive World Cup appearance, it’s seemingly no longer about how fast the Samurai Blue can qualify, it’s what they can do once they get there. This time around Japan are hoping to extend their dominance beyond Asia with their first ever run past the round of 16, and they’ve got a talented squad to do it with.
Shinji Kagawa, M, Manchester United (pictured left): He’s Japan’s biggest name and one of Samurai Blue’s leaders. The creative midfielder was the 2012 Asian Football Confederation’s International Player of the Year, and some believe he should be the starting No. 10 for Manchester United. Maybe this is why.
Keisuke Honda, M, CSKA Moscow: Whether his role is as a playmaker or second striker, Honda has certainly has his moments for the Japanese national team. His star is also on the rise as he will make the move to AC Milan in January after leading CSKA to their first Russian Premier League title in seven years last season.
Shinji Okazaki, F, FSV Mainz 05: He may not garner as much foreign attention as Kagawa and Honda, but Okazaki has featured more than any other player throughout Japan’s qualifying road, scoring eight goals in 14 games.
Alberto Zaccheroni (right) is a legend in Italy, leading a number of Serie A clubs over the course of his career. He took over the Samurai Blue in 2010 and promptly led them to their fourth consecutive Asian Cup championship in 2011. But after a disappointment in the 2013 Confederations Cup, the Italian is facing some pressure heading into the World Cup with a very talented group.
WCQ record: 5-2-1, 17 pts. / 16 GF, 5 GA (first place in Asia’s Group B)
Japan’s relatively easy road started with a 3-0 victory against Oman and a 6-0 victory over Jordan in March and August of 2012, respectively. The Samurai Blue qualified all the way back in June after playing Australia, the second-place team in Group B, to a second 1-1 draw. Their only defeat in the group came March 26 in a 2-1 loss to Jordan in Amman.
Fifth appearance
It took Japan awhile to get here, 10 tries to be exact before qualifying for the first time in 1998. That year, they didn’t make it out of the group stage. Their second appearance as the host country in 2002, they advanced to the round of 16, where they were defeated 1-0 by Turkey in the first knockout game. In 2006, Japan once again failed to advance out of the group stages. Paraguay knocked them out in 2010, 5-3 on penalty kicks, in their second appearance in the round of 16, which led to a famous bet made by Paraguayan model Larissa Riquelme.

Korea Republic didn't take the easiest route to their eighth consecutive World Cup, finishing second to Iran in their AFC group, and it cost their previous manager, Choi Kang-Hee, his job. But some recent results, most notably a 2-1 victory over eighth-ranked Switzerland in a friendly on Nov. 15, has given Asia’s most accomplished side hope for a productive tournament.
Park Chu-Young, F, Arsenal (at left): He’s one of his country’s most popular players, who started his club career with FC Seoul, before rising to fame thanks to a crucial free-kick goal in a 2-2 draw against Nigeria that sent the South Koreans to the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup. He also scored the first goal in Korea Republic’s 2-0 win over Japan in the bronze medal game of the London Olympics. And he leads his team with six goals in WCQ games for this year’s tournament.
Lee Keun-Ho, F, Sangju Sangmu Phoenix: He has 18 goals for the Taegeuk Warriors and five in qualifying games for this year’s tournament. A club player in Korea Republic’s top league most of his career, even spurning offers from top European sides along the way, he’s scored 14 times for his current club in 2013.
Son Heung-Min, F, Bayer Leverkusen: He may not have received much run under the Koreans' former coach through qualifying, but new boss Hong Myung-Bo appears ready to hand him the reigns. Still only 21, many are waiting for Son to be the country’s next big thing. He certainly has some highlight-reel goals, including this one.
Hong Myung-Bo (at right) is Korea Republic’s most-capped player who was on the field for the country’s proudest moment when they advanced to the semifinals on their home soil in the 2002 World Cup. Now the onetime LA Galaxy defender takes over for much-maligned Choi, giving his countrymen hope he’ll lead their team back to the promised land.
WCQ record: 4-2-2, 14 pts. / 13 GF, 7 GA (second place in Asia’s Group A)
The South Koreans made it by the skin of their teeth, nicking Uzbekistan only on goal differential for the second spot in their group and finishing behind Iran. They lost twice to Iran, both by 1-0 score lines, and also fell 2-1 to Lebanon. But thanks to big back-to-back wins over Qatar (4-1 on June 8, 2012) and Lebanon (3-0, June 12), the Taegeuk Warriors made it through.
Ninth appearance
Korea Republic’s fourth-place finish as the host country, along with Japan, in 2002 is still held up as the standard. That year, they finished atop their group, which included the USMNT, beat Italy 2-1 in a memorable extratime game in the round of 16, and then a legendary win over Spain on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. Their historic run ended with a 1-0 loss to the Germans in the semifinals, before losing 3-2 to Turkey in the third-place game. But only one other time have they advanced out of group stage, the second being in the 2010 tournament when they lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the first knockout stage.

Many North American viewers will remember them first and foremost as the hard-luck victims of Landon Donovan's late heroics in the USA's 1-0, group-winning victory in the 2010 World Cup.
But there's more to Algeria than that painful moment in Pretoria. Now led by canny Bosnian manager Vahid Halilhodzic, Les Fennecs (Desert Foxes) have ushered in a new generation of talent while keeping on course for a second straight qualification from the always-rugged Confederation of African Football.

Madjid Bougherra, D, Lekhwiya (pictured left): The center back starred for Rangers FC during their last stint atop the Scottish Premier League and now provides a veteran anchor for a youngish Algeria side.
Islam Slimani, F, Sporting Clube de Portugal: Les Fennecs' leading scorer during qualification – he found the net nearly once every 90 minutes – made a big move from domestic club CR Belouizdad to one of the Portuguese top flight's giants over the summer.
Sofiane Feghouli, M, Valencia: One of the flashiest jewels in Halilhodzic's youth movement, Feghouli is the latest of many to draw comparisons to another French-born Algerian talent, the one and only Zinédine Zidane, and has the potential to enliven the traditionally cautious Foxes.
Vahid Halilhodzic (pictured right) wears no beard but he might just have a case for “most interesting man in the world” given his peripatetic journey in the game.
Fleeing war-torn Herzegovina in the early 1990s, he climbed up the coaching ranks from the French lower divisions to Morocco – where he won the African Champions League with Raja Casablanca – to the bright lights of Paris as the boss at PSG, and on to myriad other jobs in places like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Ivory Coast.
His evenhanded leadership kept the latter team from completely unraveling at the 2013 African Cup of Nations after a deadly terrorist attack on the Togo national team near Ivory Coast's home base.
Algeria began the road to Rio by cruising past Mali, Benin and Rwanda in group play. After a 3-2 loss in Ouagadougou, the Foxes carved out a tense 1-0 win over the Burkinabé at home in the second leg to advance to Brazil on the away-goal tiebreaker.

Fourth appearance
Algeria sprang one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's annals when they shocked West Germany 2-1 at Spain 1982, only the second victory by an African side in World Cup history. But the knockout rounds remain elusive, as they were unable to escape the group stage in '82, '86 or '10.

Inconsistency plagued Cameroon’s World Cup qualifying campaign, with the team only able to win consecutive games once thanks to a match that was forfeited. Nonetheless, the Indomitable Lions reached Brazil 2014 and are now hoping to add to the foundation laid by new head coach Volker Finke.
Samuel Eto’o, F, Chelsea (at left): Cameroon’s captain might not be in the peak of his career anymore, but he is still capable of coming up with masterful performances. The 32-year-old came out of international retirement to score twice in a 2-1 qualifying victory vs. Togo, and he will surely be asked to replicate that type of outing once the balls get rolling in Brazil.
Alexandre Song, M, Barcelona: An experienced midfielder who has played at some of the biggest clubs in the world, Song was one of Cameroon’s regular faces in qualifying. The versatile 26-year-old brought leadership and quality for the Indomitable Lions, traits that were needed considering there was a coaching change just after the campaign began.
Jean Makoun, M, Rennes: Struggled to really nail down a starting spot throughout Cameroon’s eight qualifiers, but took a step towards that with his two-goal outing in the decisive 4-1 victory over Tunisia. The World Cup veteran, at worst, provided a talented weapon off the bench.

Volker Finke (at right) was handed his first national team assignment back in May 2013, replacing interim head coach Jean-Paul Akono. The 65-year-old had little time to familiarize himself with his new team as he was thrust into a pair of qualifiers a month later, but he successfully led the Indomitable Lions to their second consecutive World Cup.
A former player, the German was in charge of only clubs prior to being appointed Cameroon’s manager. He is known most for his 16-year tenure as head coach of SC Freiburg from 1991-2007.
WCQ record: 4-1-1, 13 pts. / 8 GF, 3 GA (first place in Africa’s Group I); 1-0-1 in playoff vs. Tunisia / 4 GF, 1 GA
A 4-1-1 record in group play followed by a 4-1 aggregate victory in a playoff may indicate a rather easy road to the World Cup, but that was not the case for Cameroon. The African powerhouse was inconsistent in the group stage and benefitted from a 2-0 loss to Togo turning into a 3-0 victory after it was ruled that the Sparrow Hawks fielded an ineligible player. The Cameroonians then played to a scoreless first leg with Tunisia in their playoff before winning big at home.

Seventh appearance
Cameroon continue to be one of the regulars from Africa to reach the World Cup. The Indomitable Lions have now made it to six of the last seven tournaments (the lone exception being Germany 2006) but will be aiming to break their trend of failing to move past the group stage, which they did only in Italy 1990.



They dashed US hopes in the last two World Cups and booked their tickets to Brazil by crushing Bob Bradley's Egypt in the final round of African qualifying. Now Ghana are quietly confident of going even further in 2014 than they did at South Africa 2010, where a sensational goal-line handball by Uruguay's Luis Suárez denied them a place in the semifinals.
Asamoah Gyan, F, Al Ain (UAE): He dropped off the radar a bit since his lucrative move to the Persian Gulf, but Ghana's captain led the team in scoring during qualifying and should be as hungry as ever to wash away the memory of his injury-time PK miss against Uruguay in 2010.
Harrison Afful, D, Espérance (Tunisia): Somewhat surprisingly, no one logged more minutes in the Black Stars' qualifying campaign than the reliable fullback. Slightly-built, but versatile and energetic: Consider him the right-footed Ghanaian version of DaMarcus Beasley.
Sulley Muntari, M, AC Milan: Seems like he's been around for ages, roving the midfields of Serie A and the English Premier League, and despite a tumultuous disciplinary history with his national team he looks likely to be an influential cog in Ghana's Brazilian adventure.

In a region full of hired-gun managers from abroad, James Kwesi Appiah is already in the history books as the first black coach to lead an African team to World Cup qualification. A presence on the Black Stars' technical staff for years, his appointment to the top job last year broke a long sequence of European managers: Serbians Goran Stevanovic, Milovan Rajevac and Ratomir Dujkovic and Frenchman Claude Le Roy.
WCQ record: 6-2-0 / 25 GF, 6 GA (First place in Africa's Group D, won two-legged playoff with Egypt)
Though they conceded just three goals in six group-stage matches, the Black Stars were tested by Zambia – the identity of the group winner wasn't certain until the final game of the round on Sept. 6, a 2-1 Ghana win at Baba Yara Stadium, their home ground in Kumasi. A little more than a month later, that same venue became a house of horrors for Egypt and their American coach Bob Bradley in a 6-1 mauling that effectively sealed the hosts' qualification.

Third appearance
For decades, Ghana were a sleeping giant of African soccer, missing out on one World Cup after another despite winning the African Cup of Nations four times. Those years of frustration finally ended with passage to Germany 2006, where they reached the round of 16, and further progress was made in a solid display on their home continent four years later.

World Cup qualifying in Africa is never easy, but you would have been hard-pressed to guess that after seeing how Ivory Coast reached Brazil 2014. The Elephants punched their ticket to next summer’s tournament largely unscathed, boasting an undefeated overall record of 5-0-3.
Didier Drogba, F, Galatasaray: Ivory Coast’s captain may be on the wrong side of 30, but he lived up to his reputation of being a powerful striker capable of finding the back of the net with regularity. The 35-year-old netted four goals in qualifying, tying him for second-most on the team.
Yaya Touré, M, Manchester City: The other four-goal scorer for the Elephants, Touré added some punch out of midfield. The Manchester City midfielder also contributed on the other side of the ball, helping his nation concede just seven times in eight games.
Kolo Touré, D, Liverpool: The older Touré brother helped lead a defense that posted three shutouts and never surrendered more than two goals in any game in qualifying. He also contributed to the offensive end with a goal in a draw with Morocco.

Sabri Lamouchi stepped into his first head-coaching gig in May 2012 and never looked back. The former France national team midfielder navigated the Ivory Coast through CAF qualifying, which is known for being tricky, with ease and learned a lot in the process.
Lamouchi, 42, might not have much managerial experience but his pedigree as a player indicates that he might be well-suited to coach. He played for several top European clubs in his time, including Inter Milan, Olympique Marseille and AS Monaco.
WCQ record: 4-0-2, 14 pts. / 15 GF, 5 GA (first place in Africa’s Group C); 1-0-1 in playoff vs. Senegal / 4 GF, 2 GA
Ivory Coast took their four-team group in the second round of CAF qualifying by five points, a healthy margin considering only six games are played. The Elephants then defeated Senegal 3-1 in the first leg of their playoff series before suffering their most anxious moments of the campaign in the return leg that ended 1-1 thanks to a second-half stoppage-time goal from Salomon Kalou.

Third appearance
The African heavyweights have made it to their third straight World Cup after never having reached the tournament prior to 2006. Still, Ivory Coast will be looking to avoid a repeat of their past performances, as they have yet to make it past the group stage.


It hasn’t been an easy go for the Nigerian national team at the World Cup, having missed out on the tournament in 2006 and failing to advance to the knockout round since 1998. The pride-filled outfit is once again undergoing a transformation under head coach Stephen Keshi. Mainstays such as Seattle Sounders forward Obafemi Martins, longtime captain Joseph Yobo, Villarreal striker Ikechukwu Uche and QPR defender Taye Taiwo weren’t in Keshi’s plans for qualifying, although recent signs show he may give the veterans a second look come tournament time.
John Obi Mikel, M, Chelsea (left): The 2013 Nigerian Sportsman of the Year appears to be the Super Eagles’ new leader. The Chelsea mainstay is a defensive stalwart for his club, but has shown brilliance getting forward for country, not to mention his deadly accurate set-piece ability.
Emmanuel Emenike, F, Fenerbahçe: The young striker is coming into his own. His brace in Nigeria’s away leg of a World Cup qualifying playoff against Ethiopia on Oct. 13 sent his side well on their way to Brazil and solidified his place as Keshi’s top choice up top.
Victor Moses, F, Liverpool: The versatile winger is making a push to start for Liverpool, where he is on loan from Chelsea, and he’s a first choice for Nigeria, especially after he opened the scoring in the Super Eagles’ 2-0 World Cup-clinching victory over Ethiopia on Nov. 16.
Stephen Keshi (right) became one of two people to win the Africa Cup of Nations as both a player and a coach after he led the Super Eagles to this year’s title in February. He won with Nigeria as a player in 1994. Now he’s tasked with leading his team to the knockout round for the first time since 1998, and he’s doing it with a transformed roster that has brought about its fair share of criticism.
WCQ record: 3-0-3 12 pts. / 11 GF, 4 GA (first place in Africa’s Group F, beat Ethiopia in playoff)
Nigeria all but sealed their trip to Brazil when they pinched a 2-1 victory over Ethiopia, winner of Africa’s Group A and gunning for their first-ever World Cup berth, in the away leg of the two-leg playoff. The Super Eagles then sealed the deal with a 2-0 victory at home on Nov. 16 to become Africa’s first country to write their ticket to Brazil. It all came after Nigeria easily bested Malawi, Kenya and Namibia in their group.
Fifth appearance
Nigeria’s first trip to the World Cup came in 1994 when the United States hosted. Outside of 2006, the Super Eagles have qualified in every year since. Their most successful forays into the tournament came in their first two appearances. In '94, Nigeria advanced out of their group and lost 2-1 to Italy in the first knockout round. Then in 1998, Nigeria won their group, which consisted of Spain, Paraguay and Bulgaria, only to lose 4-1 to Denmark in the knockout round.

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