The 2014 FIFA World Cup draw took place in Brazil on Friday, as the 32 qualified teams were drawn into eight groups of four. Some quick thoughts on what it means for the tournament next summer:
1. Brazil were favourites going into the draw - and they still are
As host nation, Brazil did not need to qualify for the World Cup. That is sometimes regarded as a disadvantage, as the host nation does not play any competitive games leading up to the tournament, and instead relies on a series of friendly games for their preparation.
I don't believe that this will affect Brazil one bit. They have been impressive in 2013, winning their last six exhibition games by a cumulative score of 20-2. They comprehensively won the Confederations Cup in the summer, defeating reigning world and European champions, Spain 3-0 in the final. In total, Brazil lost just two of their 19 games played in 2013; a 2-1 loss to England to start the year, and a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Switzerland in August.
They have a wealth of talent to choose from, with players like Ramires, Oscar, Paulinho, Thiago Silva and Hulk all likely to be relied upon. But the player that everyone is looking at to steal the show in Brazil next summer is Neymar, the 21-year old superstar who was voted the best player at this year's Confederations Cup. Next summer's World Cup could be his tournament to decide.
2. South American teams will dominate
This is the fifth time the World Cup will be played in South America. The previous four tournaments have all been won by South American nations. Uruguay lifted the first World Cup in 1930, then again in 1950; Brazil claimed victory in 1962, and Argentina took home the trophy in 1978.
There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that this trend will continue.
The qualification process in CONMEBOL is an arduous one; 16 games played over a two-year period ensures that only the best teams reach the finals. The experience gained by those nations - getting used to the climate, conditions, travel and logistics - is invaluable, not to mention the competitiveness of the qualifying games themselves.
Do not underestimate the effects of the weather conditions and travel distances, either. It will be very hot and humid in some of the Brazilian venues, something that the northern European countries do not prefer. The midday kickoff times for many games will simply add to their discomfort. And the travel between venues as teams progress in the tournament just adds another obstacle for teams to overcome.
3. England is not a legitimate contender
This might seem like common sense to anyone who follows the world game, but it is worth repeating every four years. England will not win the World Cup - and they won't even come close.
Regardless of the players selected and regardless of the form of the team heading into the tournament, there is always an unrealistic expectation from England fans that 'this could be the year' that England will claim its first World Cup victory since 1966.
Well, it isn't going to happen. In fact, England will do well to get out of their group.
Drawn in Group D with Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy, it is not an unreasonable scenario to see England going home after the group stage. Uruguay boast two of the best strikers in the world in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and despite having to qualify through the playoffs, they will be favourites to win the group. Italy will be a difficult opponent for England, who lack the individual creativity to break down the Italians' traditional strong defensive unit. In Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi, the Italians have offensive talents that will be difficult for England to contain, so I make the Italians favourites to pip England and reach the knockout stage.
4. 'Group of Death' is a tired cliché
Every four years, fans and pundits alike revel in discussing which is the 'Group of Death', the most difficult from which to reach the knockout stage. Do we really need to do this?
Every group is difficult. Every team has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Even minnows like Iran and Algeria will not simply roll over and accept defeat at the hands of their more illustrious opponents (remember New Zealand in 2010?) The coaching staff of each team, regardless of their relative strengths or weaknesses, will meticulously prepare their teams to ensure that they are capable of achieving their objective in each game.
That being said, there are some interesting matchups.
Many people were quick to point out the strength of Group G, with Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the United States, but for me, Group B is far more interesting. Defending world and European champions Spain are the seeded team, with the Netherlands, Chile and Australia rounding out the group. Do not be surprised to see Chile finish ahead of the Netherlands. Alexis Sanchez is a fabulous attacking talent, and Arturo Vidal is one of the most complete box-to-box midfielders in the world. The Chile vs Netherlands game will decide which of the two nations accompanies Spain into the knockout stage.
5. Winners and losers
There are always teams that come out of the draw with a figurative smile on their face, while others are left to curse their bad luck.
Here are the winners:
Brazil - Group A shouldn't pose a problem for the favourites, and they will cruise through in first place.
Argentina - The seeded team in Group F will face Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. Again, expect comfortable passage to the knockout phase.
Belgium - Many people see Belgium as a dark horse in the World Cup, and given that they face Algeria, Russia and Korea Republic, they've been given a fairly gentle introduction in the group stage.
Here are the losers:
Australia - It couldn't get much worse for the Aussies, who face defending champs Spain, the always difficult Dutch and the attacking flair of Chile in Group B. It will be three and out for Australia.
England - While England should get the better of Costa Rica, they have two extremely difficult games against Uruguay and Italy - not to mention the weight of expectation that is always heaped on their shoulders. If England are to make it to the knockout phase, they will have to perform above their capabilities.
United States - Three very different opponents in Group G; the efficient Germans, the powerful Ghanaians, and the brilliance of arguably the world's best player, Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portuguese team. It is hard to envision Jürgen Klinsmann leading the U.S. into the knockout stage.