LONDON (AFP) - World governing body Fifa on Friday conducted the draw for next year's World Cup, when 32 national teams will converge on Brazil to compete for the sport's most important prize.
Six months and six days before the tournament opens with a game between Brazil and Croatia in Sao Paulo, AFP Sports assesses where the group phase will be decided.
GROUP A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon - Having hit form in spectacular style earlier this year by winning the Confederations Cup with a 3-0 win over world and European champions Spain, Brazil start the tournament as favourites. Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon are likely to face a fight to secure second place.
Croatia and Mexico are classed in the top 20 in the Fifa ranking, but both struggled in qualifying and had to come through play-offs; Croatia overcoming Iceland and Mexico thrashing New Zealand 9-3 over two legs. Cameroon, ranked 51st, saw off Tunisia 4-1 in the final round of African qualifying.
Mexico's Under-23 side stunned a Brazil team featuring Neymar, Oscar and Thiago Silva in last year's Olympic final in London, but the Selecao gained a measure of revenge with a 2-0 win at the Confederations Cup.
GROUP B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia - Four years on from their duel in the 2010 final at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium, Spain and the Netherlands will do battle again for supremacy in Group B. Spain remain the world's top-ranked team, but their crown has slipped in the wake of the one-sided loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.
Now under the management of Louis van Gaal, Holland stormed through qualifying, dropping only two points and scoring 34 goals. Chile will also provide a stern test, having surged to a place in Brazil with a run of five wins and a draw in their six final qualifying matches.
Beaten 2-1 by Spain in the group phase at the last World Cup, they came within a whisker of defeating Vicente del Bosque's side in a recent friendly in Geneva. Australia, who are rebuilding under new coach Ange Postecoglou, appear unlikely to avoid a fourth-place finish.
GROUP C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan - One of only two pools not to feature a previous tournament-winner, Group C is headlined by a Colombia side who qualified comfortably behind Argentina in South American qualifying. With an attack spearheaded by Monaco team-mates James Rodriguez and 'El Tigre' Radamel Falcao, they are currently ranked fourth in the world.
Greece, who beat Romania in a qualifying play-off, remain characteristically obdurate opponents, however, and Ivory Coast's gilded generation of Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba will view this as their last chance to make a mark at a World Cup. Japan are ranked well below their three group rivals, but they reached the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup and boast world-renowned attacking midfielders such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.
GROUP D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy - England's media were quick to categorise Group D the 'Group of Death' and Roy Hodgson's side face an unenviable task. Italy looked a class apart in their quarter-final victory on penalties over England at the 2012 European Championship, while South American champions Uruguay boast a formidable attacking trident of Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Both Italy and England finished unbeaten in European qualifying, but English optimism has been tempered by recent friendly defeats at home to Germany and Chile.
Uruguay won the last World Cup on Brazilian soil, in 1950, but they laboured in qualifying and had to come through a play-off against Jordan. Costa Rica qualified in second place behind the United States in the CONCACAF region, but they will have their work cut out.
GROUP E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras - After remarkably coming back from the dead in their qualifying play-off against Ukraine, France were rewarded with a seemingly straightforward draw.
However, they found themselves in similarly benign-seeming groups in both 2006 and 2010, only to toil in Germany and crash out in South Africa. The scars of the South African debacle, when the squad went on strike, are yet to heal fully, but Didier Deschamps's gifted squad will be strongly favoured to reach the last 16. Switzerland stunned Spain at the last World Cup, but were held to draws by both Cyprus and Iceland in qualifying.
Ecuador pipped Uruguay to an automatic qualifying place in the CONMEBOL region, but they relied heavily on their home form and failed to win a single game away from home. Honduras's fate is likely to be determined to a large extent by their second group game, against Ecuador in Curitiba.
GROUP F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria - The leading team in South American qualifying, Argentina will hope that Barcelona megastar Lionel Messi, the world's outstanding player, is ready to leave his mark on a World Cup after a fitful tournament in 2006 and disappointment under Diego Maradona's slightly chaotic stewardship in 2010.
They will be expected to win the group, but face difficult opponents in the form of tournament debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina and African champions Nigeria.
Led by forwards Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic, Bosnia netted an impressive 30 goals in qualifying, while Nigeria won this year's Africa Cup of Nations and impressed in a recent 2-2 friendly draw with Italy. Iran went into the draw as Asia's top-ranked team, but their hopes of progressing appear meagre.
GROUP G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States - A pool without a glaring weak spot, Group G sees title contenders Germany drawn alongside familiar foes in the form of Portugal and Ghana. Germany encountered Ghana in the group phase of the last World Cup, winning 1-0 in Johannesburg, and overcame Portugal by the same scoreline at Euro 2012. With a squad packed with lavishly gifted players, Joachim Loew's side are among the favourites for the tournament and will be expected to top the group, although they are likely to face a strong challenge from Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal.
Ghana reached the last eight at the last World Cup and remain a solid prospect, having overcome Egypt 7-3 in a play-off to qualify. The draw had unique resonance for United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann, one of Germany's greatest ever players, who led his country to the World Cup semi-finals on home soil as manager in 2006. However, the presence of two European heavyweights in the group means a repeat performance with his adopted home nation seems improbable.
GROUP H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea - Blessed with a startling array of talent, including a glut of stars from the English Premier League, Belgium were imperious in qualifying and are being tipped to make a serious impression in Brazil.
Russia coach Fabio Capello will hope for better World Cup memories after a dismal experience with England in 2010, having steered his well-drilled side to an impressive first-place finish ahead of Portugal in European qualifying Group F.
Memorable surprise semi-finalists on home turf in 2002, South Korea failed to convince in qualifying, but can take heart from the absence of any traditional powerhouses in the group. Algeria, meanwhile, will be expected to repeat their last-place group finish at the last World Cup, having gone out in the first round at this year's Africa Cup of Nations.
England will face Italy and Uruguay at the 2014 Fifa World Cup, while holders Spain will take on Holland in a repeat of the 2010 final. Hosts Brazil will play Croatia in the opening match of the tournament.