Nine group winners qualify and four from play-offs featuring the best eight second-placed finishers.
Spain start slowly
Presuming they qualify, Spain's push for an impossible fourth straight championship will be the dominant story of the World Cup. But the holders, who have won the last two European Championships, did not start their Group I campaign perfectly.
They needed a late Roberto Soldado winner to beat Georgia before letting leads slip in home draws with France and Finland. But Spain always seem to do what they need to and their 1-0 win in the Stade de France on Tuesday night, thanks to Pedro's winner, has put them back on top of the group with three games left. Only their trip to Helsinki in September should challenge them.
Germany and the Netherlands set the pace
As with the qualification for Euro 2012, the Netherlands and Germany have started the fastest. The Netherlands are trying to return to their classical principles under Louis van Gaal and have won all six games in Group D, leaving them seven points clear of Hungary. Van Gaal is making use of young midfielders Kevin Strootman, Adam Maher and Jordy Clasie.
Joachim Löw's Germany also have a young side, and 20-year-old Mario Götze led the line in their 4-1 defeat of Kazakhstan on Tuesday. Germany, unlike the Netherlands, have dropped two points so far but lead Group C by six and should certainly qualify in September.
Rise of former Yugoslav countries
While Croatia and Serbia are fairly regular World Cup competitors, two smaller nations from the former Yugoslavia could play in Brazil. Bosnia have never reached a major tournament but they are two points clear at the top of Group G. Edin Dzeko is a superstar in Sarajevo and he has scored seven goals so far, the most in Europe.
Montenegro is smaller than Bosnia and newer as an independent football nation, but they are certainly effective, as England found out on Tuesday. They are two points clear in Group H but still have to come to Wembley in October. And Croatia are close in Group A.
Belgium's golden generation
Any watcher of the Premier League knows how good this generation of Belgian players is – Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembélé and so on. In this campaign they are all producing, giving Belgium a chance at their first major tournament since 2002.
In a competitive Group A, Belgium are ahead of Croatia on goal difference, having drawn with them at home last September, and beaten Wales, Serbia, Scotland and Macedonia. The crucial rematch, in Split, is in October. Belgium, for the first time in years, have a better chance of qualification than neighbours France.
The best performance of Mario Balotelli's career so far was in the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany, and with more of the same in this campaign he can fire Italy to the World Cup. Balotelli rewarded Cesare Prandelli's continued trust with two goals in Malta this week, providing a win that leaves Italy three points clear at the top of Group B with a game in hand.
Prandelli may be joined in Brazil by another famous Italian coach. Fabio Capello's Russia have won all four Group F games so far, and are ahead of Portugal and Israel, but have played fewer than half their games so far.
South America (CONMEBOL)
Top four qualify, fifth-placed plays off against fifth Asian team. Brazil qualify as hosts.
Aregentina's time again?
For years Argentina have seemed almost overburdened by the weight of attacking talent they have, but since Alejandro Sabella took over following their 2011 Copa America disaster they are starting to reach their potential. Argentina are top of the South American group, from which the top four automatically progress, with five games left.
Of course, qualification is not certain yet but it would take a remarkable collapse for them to fail to make it. And with Gonzalo Higuain having scored nine goals so far and Lionel Messi eight, as well as Javier Mascherano, Angel di Maria, Pablo Zabaleta and others, it looks rather unlikely.
Having reached the semi-finals in the 2010 World Cup and won the 2011 Copa America, Uruguay should have been confident of qualification for 2014. But they are sixth, with 13 points from 11 games, and need to climb above Venezuela – fighting to reach their first World Cup – just to reach the play-off place.
Luis Suarez, unsurprisingly, is leading their charge, with eight goals so far, but he could be banned for up to three future qualifiers after seeming to punch Chile defender Gonzalo Jara last week. Without him, Uruguay's task could be even harder.
Dark horses on the march
Second and third places behind Argentina are currently occupied by Ecuador and Colombia. Ecuador have only appeared at two World Cups before, in 2002 and 2006, but they are a very solid unit and have enough firepower in Felipe Caicedo, Christian Benitez and Antonio Valencia to hold on to their position in the group.
Colombia, one point behind in third place, have even more attacking quality to call upon. Falcao, the £50m-rated striker, leads the line with help from Porto's brilliant winger James Rodriguez and Fredy Guarin of Internazionale. Not many teams could live with them on their day.
Brazil have work to do
Brazil, as hosts, have already qualified so their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, has only a series of friendlies in which to attempt to forge his collection of talented individuals into something approaching a useful unit. They were a mess in a recent 2-1 loss against England at Wembley, started brilliantly in a 2-2 draw with Italy, then scraped a 1-1 draw with Russia this week. There is work still to be done but, with Neymar and Oscar and the rest, they certainly have something going for them.
Ten group winners go into knockout round, five winners qualify.
African champions in tight group
After their triumph at the African Cup of Nations earlier this year, Nigeria are under the most scrutiny but their route to Brazil will not be easy. They need to win their group – we are halfway through the group stages – to reach the knockout round. So far Nigeria are top of Group F but only on goals scored and so Stephen Keshi's side, featuring Victor Moses and Jon Obi Mikel but a good mix of Nigerian-based players too, will need to avoid upsets in their trips to Kenya and Namibia in June.
Egypt start quickly
They are the most successful team in the African Cup of Nations but Egypt have not reached a World Cup since 1990. American coach Bob Bradley hopes to change that next year and they have started perfectly, with three wins from three games. Mohamed Aboutrika's late penalty sealed a 2-1 win over Zimbabwe this week, meaning two wins in June can assure Egypt's passage to the autumn knockout round. After all that has happened in recent years Egypt are desperate to make it to the finals.
Tunisia have also won all three of their games so far, and can qualify for the third round with their next match if they beat Sierra Leone and the other result goes their way.
Ghana have work to do
The quarter-finalists at the 2010 World Cup, only the third African team to reach that stage, Ghana have a fight on to reach Brazil 2014. They are in a very uneven Group D, with 2012 African champions Zambia but weaker sides Sudan and Lesotho. Having lost 1-0 in Zambia in June, they will need to beat them in the deciding match back in Ghana in September. Tempting Kevin-Prince Boateng back out of international retirement would certainly help.
Four qualify automatically from two groups, third places play off for right to play off against fifth from South America.
Japan have one foot on the plane
The top two teams from the two fourth-round groups qualify automatically, and Japan are closest to ensuring their safe passage. The 2011 Asian Cup champions are six points clear at the top of Group B, but a 2-1 defeat by Jordan on Tuesday slowed their progress.
With a few exceptions – such as the Premier League's Maya Yoshida and Shinji Kagawa – the team is based primarily in Japan and Germany, and they have an impressive mix of technical quality and organisation. A draw in their next game – Australia at home – will be enough to book their passage to Brazil next summer.
Can Uzbekistan do it?
One of the sides who could make their World Cup debut in Brazil, Uzbekistan are top of Asian Group A. The former Soviet nation has been independent since 1991 and while the domestic league was well-funded enough to attract Rivaldo once, it has never threatened at international level. But with manager Mirjalol Qosimov unbeaten so far they are close to confirming at least a play-off place, while a result in South Korea in June should be enough to seal qualification.
Might Jordan hold off Australia?
Australia have reached three World Cups and Jordan none but the Arab nation can qualify for Brazil at the Socceroos' expense. Separated by just one point in Group B, they have a crucial qualifier in Melbourne in June. Jordan have already beaten Australia and Japan in Amman with a team based almost entirely in the Middle East.
Central and North America (CONCACAF)
Top three teams qualify, the fourth plays off against New Zealand.
The top six Concacaf teams are now in their final group stage, known as "The Hexagonal", with the top three automatically qualifying. Only three of the 10 rounds have been played but the surprise early leaders are Panama, another country who would play at their first World Cup.
The small nation, on the isthmus between Costa Rica and Colombia, did reach the Gold Cup semi-finals in 2011 but baseball has traditionally been more popular. The management team of twin brothers Julio and Jorge Dely Valdes is trying to make history.
Can Klinsmann make another finals?
Jürgen Klinsmann took Germany to the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and would love to take the United States to Brazil. But his tactics and selection have not been universally popular, and his recent dropping of captain Carlos Bocanegra was certainly controversial. The United States have four points from their three games, and there will be lots more hard work left between now and October.
Can Mexico punch their weight?
The 2012 Olympic champions are among the great underachievers in international football, having only reached two World Cup quarter-finals, and those – in 1970 and 1986 – both on home soil. And with three draws from their three "Hexagonal" games so far there is certainly room for improvement, after a 0-0 draw with the United States in Mexico City this week.
Group winner plays off v Concacaf fourth.
With Australia now officially part of Asia, New Zealand did not have a difficult task winning the Oceania group, thumping New Caledonia, Tahiti and the Solomon Islands. All they have to do now is stay fit for November's play-off against the fourth-best Concacaf team.