The rise and rise of the Socceroos. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

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The 2014 FIFA World Cup might still be just under a year away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about how one of sport’s greatest tournaments will unfold.

Arguably the most iconic nation of them all – Brazil – will host the tournament this year, and if their recent 2013 Confederations Cup victory over some of the best teams in the world is anything to go by, they’ll certainly to be tough to beat.

But as is the case with sport, much can change between now and next year, and with the likes of Germany, Spain, Portugal and Argentina all boasting prolific squads respectively, the trophy could still be won by a number of different nations.

Which countries are looking most likely to take out the 2014 World Cup? Let’s break down the early favourites and see who comes out on top.

5. BELGIUM

Belgium might not seem like one of the big players in international football, but anyone who’s watched this team throughout the qualifying stages so far will know that this team is oozing with potential stars. Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Dries Mertens, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen – the list just goes on and on and on.

Belgium is dominating Europe’s Group A in qualifying, with six wins and a draw from their seven matches so far. They have scored 13 goals and have conceded just two – making them serious players ahead of their 2014 World Cup.

Issues still remain for the European side at both left and right back, but coach Marc Wilmots is certain of finding quality players to fill both flanks. And should that happen, this team has some serious upset potential to watch out for – especially if they run into an off Spain or Brazil in the semifinals.

4. ARGENTINA

Whenever Lionel Messi takes the field, it’s worth watching out for, and the same proves true again for his national side in Argentina.

The Albiceleste have finally figured out how to best utilize the Barcelona star in the No. 10 role and are slowly gathering the pieces around him to gain the most from their attack. The likes of Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Erik Lamela and Ezequiel Lavezzi are performing brilliantly on the international stage and have added some serious depth up front for the South Americans – proven by the fact they’ve outscored every other South American nation in qualifying so far.

It’s also important to note here that Argentina come into the World Cup this year with a significant climatic and geographical advantage. Brazil is literally just around the corner, and while the home fans will certainly be rooting against them, it will be much easier for the South Americans to adjust to the climate and conditions than a team traveling from Asia or Europe given their close proximity and familiarity.

That might not seem like much, but it will turn out to be a huge advantage for Argentina, who would be disappointed with anything less than a top-four finish here.

3. SPAIN

Two weeks ago, Spain were the unheralded champions of international football and were seemingly untouchable. Their tiki-taka style was continuing to give them great success and no matter how hard teams tried, they simply could not stop La Roja from dominating in midfield and scoring goals because of it.

Until the 2013 Confederations Cup, that is.

Spain were comfortably dispatched by the host nation in Brazil 3-0 in the final, in a scoreline that probably flattered the European champions more than anything. They were easily beaten by the quick, counter-attacking nature of the South Americans and could not turn their dominance in central midfield into attacking opportunities – something they had been so strong at doing in the years prior to the tournament.

They were without a key player or two for the tournament, so it’s hard to judge where La Roja will be next year with a full complement of attacking weapons, but it’s hard to see them as being the favorite for the World Cup anymore.

Spain were beaten on the counter-attack and shown to be slow against the pace and athleticism of Brazil. Their squad is talented – no doubt – and they will certainly be a huge contender in Brazil next year as a result of that.

But with defensive concerns and no world-class striker at the top of their attack like other nations, it’s hard to see them coming into the tournament as the No. 1 team to beat, like many had expected they would be.

2. GERMANY

German football has been quietly blossoming for years now, and with the recent success of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League, it’s clear just how strong their national team is right now.

Andre Schurrle, Lukas Podolski, Julian Draxler, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are all likely to be there in Brazil next year and, barring any injuries, will be a very tough lineup to beat. They boast attacking prowess right across the pitch and have an incredibly strong defensive unit to hold the likes of Spain and Brazil at bay.

Perhaps the biggest threat for the Germans is their counter-attacking nature and their clinical finishing in attack. That was what allowed Brazil to beat Spain recently and it’s what should allow Germany to do the same – potentially even against their South American opponents in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, who do the same.

Their young players all experienced the 2010 World Cup and are much better for it. Their seasoned veterans all suffered heartbreak at the 2012 European Championships and are much better for it as well.

Germany have everything to prove and will be as ruthless as always. They are physically and mentally sound and don’t have any glaring weaknesses in their side – making them a huge threat to not only make it through to at least the semifinals, but also to take out the entire 2014 World Cup tournament.

Definitely one to watch out for.

1. BRAZIL

But given what we saw at the 2013 Confederations Cup, it’s hard to have any nation other than Brazil as the favorites to clinch the 2014 World Cup. They are brilliant in attack and midfield, have a slew of world-class players at their disposal, and perhaps most importantly, have proven themselves at the international level before.

Brazil will be buoyed by the home crowd support and familiar circumstances, and that home-ground advantage cannot be underestimated this year. The Maracana is one of football’s greatest stadiums and when filled with 100,000 screaming Brazilians, makes for a very difficult venue to win at.

As they showed against Spain, they are technically brilliant in midfield with Paulinho, Luis Gustavo and Sandro waiting in the wings as well. Their attack – led by the likes of Lucas Moura, Oscar and of course, Neymar – is one of the most potent in world football and will capitalize on even the most innocuous-looking opportunities that they create with their high-pressure defense.

In front of their home crowd, Brazil will be seriously tough to beat, and are a deserved favorite with just under a year to go until the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

It can’t come soon enough.

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