Four years ago though, the empire fell. And those who remained were left to pick up the pieces. Slowly but surely, the foundations were laid for another shot at world dominance and Spain go into the World Cup with arguably the best starting eleven on paper.
La Furia Roja’s only weakness may be at the point of attack, with Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo all impressing in patches but not showing enough for Julen Lopetegui to place his trust in any one of them.
Dani Carvajal’s injury means that young Álvaro Odriozola is in line for a baptism of fire, especially considering the marauding right-back is more adept at bombing forward than he is at keeping attackers at bay — which will surely leave a certain Cristiano Ronaldo licking his lips when Portugal take on Spain in their opener.
Yet these minor issues will not be enough to dampen the mood in the Spanish camp, especially with the side unbeaten since Lopetegui took over more than two years ago.
The 51-year-old Lopetegui’s own version of tiki-taka and pressing, which sees him employ four perpetually rotating attacking midfielders, has seen parallels being drawn with South Africa 2010.
As always, the Selecao go into the World Cup as one of the pretournament favourites. The work that manager Tite has done since taking over should not be underestimated, with the 57-year-old completely changing the mood surrounding Brazil in the past two years.
The 7-1 humiliation against Germany — Brazil’s last World Cup game, at home too at that — hasn’t been forgotten and the football-crazy nation will be demanding a delayed riposte.
Injury to veteran right-back Dani Alves comes as a blow but a solid defence and midfield allows Brazil’s traditional flair players to concentrate solely on wreaking havoc up front.
The talismanic Neymar will be supported by attackers such as Gabriel Jesus, Firmino, Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian, and, in the Real Madrid duo of Marcelona and Casemiro, they boast the world’s best left-back and defensive midfielder.
History’s most successful team with five World Cups to their name, Brazil will be quietly confident of adding a sixth star to their badge. With a solid defence, a hard-working midfield and some of the world’s finest attackers in their side, it would take something special to deny them the title.
They say never write off the Germans. Whether it be toppling the mighty Hungarians during the Miracle of Bern or becoming the first European team to win a World Cup in South America almost exactly 60 years later, those darned Germans really become men possessed when the big tournaments come around.
What is troubling though for those not supporting this juggernaut is that they don’t enter Russia 2018 as the potential dark horses or the defiant underdogs; they enter it as the defending champions and one of the pretournament favourites.
Joachim Low’s men form a fearsome unit even before they get their customary World Cup boost. With it, there are precious few teams in the world that can withstand the full force of this German storm.
A few question marks hang over Die Mannschaft though, with skipper Manuel Neuer’s lack of game-time in the past 12 months being chief among them. The Bayern goalkeeper is peerless in his position but even the slightest hint of rust can be ruthlessly punished at the World Cup.
But what makes Germany the standout favourites is the almost ridiculous notion that somehow the whole is even greater than the sum of their formidable parts, with most of these players having played with each other time and again for both club and country.
Their form going into the World Cup has been sketchy at best but make no mistake about it, if there is one team the remaining 31 sides will be fearing, then it is Germany.
Yet France’s 1998 World Cup winning captain Didier Deschamps would know his charges are more of a side in progress than the finished product. The nagging feeling remains that Russia 2018 comes too early for the second youngest squad in the tournament, behind only Nigeria, as the likes of Dembele, Mbappe, Varane and even Pogba are yet to reach their peak years.
For all their power on paper, there seem to be too many issues with this France team for them to worry the other pretournament favourites. Full-backs Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy don’t inspire much confidence, skipper Hugo Lloris is on the decline and has made several high-profile errors this season, the side sorely lacks in both experience and leadership, and even Deschamps may not be sure of quite what is Les Bleus’ best starting eleven.
Stranger things have happened though and if the likes of Olivier Giroud, Griezmann and Pogba can be at their best, then France have a support cast good enough to see them go all the way as Deschamps looks to become only the third coach in history after Brazilian Mário Zagallo and German Franz Beckenbauer to win the World Cup as both player and manager.
THE RED DEVILS
Despite boasting some of the biggest names of the modern era, the Red Devils’ golden generation is now facing the very real possibility of never achieving anything at a major international tournament.
If former manager Marc Wilmots’ pragmatism curtailed the effectiveness of the forward line, Roberto Martinez’s expansive style of football means they are there for the picking when they come up against the best attackers.
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by Martinez is how to shoehorn players such as Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne in attack while also accommodating the likes of Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Most of this squad are at peak age and will be well aware of the fact that they may never get a better chance of winning Belgium’s first-ever World Cup.
Few teams have ever relied so much on one man, with the Barcelona legend being forced to do it almost all on his own to even get Argentina to the World Cup.
The biggest issue facing Jorge Sampaoli is how to get the best out of his plethora of attackers. None of Paulo Dybala, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria or even Messi play at the same level for Argentina as they do for their respective club sides.
It is difficult to decide what is more bizarre: Sampaoli’s decision to omit Inter skipper Mauro Icardi from the 23-man squad or the fact that Argentina go into the World Cup with their three goalkeepers, all of whom are over the age of 30, having played a total of eight international matches between them.
The overwhelming feeling is that Argentina’s weaknesses in midfield and defence can be exploited too easily for them to be feared by the best around. Yet so ominous are the names in that Argentinian attack that if they do finally click into gear then they can sweep away all who stand in their way.
However, the Euro 2016 final showed it would be unfair to brand this side a one-man team.
The talents of Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva are yet to be fully exploited by coach Fernando Santos but the budding creative midfielder can be an asset if used in the right system. Similarly, Andre Silva has emerged a viable option up front. The forward has developed a good chemistry with Ronaldo and may prove to be instrumental in Portugal’s World Cup campaign.
While Portugal don’t play the most exciting brand of football, they are defensively quite well organised. However, they have their work cut out for them if they are to make it any further than the quarter-finals.
With Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani up front and Atletico Madrid centre-backs Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez at the back, this might be La Celeste’s best generation since their heyday.
With most of Uruguay’s stars are possibly playing in their last World Cup, it will be interesting to see if they can go the distance. They are almost certain to top their group but Uruguay might run into trouble later on due to their lack of midfield choices. Add to that the very real possibility of facing either Spain or Portugal in the round of 16, there could be a repeat of their early 2014 knockout.