Reading the latest FIFA world rankings caused me to burst out laughing and spray my coffee over my keyboard!
Reflecting on the news and with the memories of England’s recent failures in major competitions (getting thrashed by Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and losing to Italy on penalties at Euro 2012 to name a few) I asked myself “How is this possible? They have not one a major competition since the 1966 World Cup”, “Why are England 3rd and Brazil only 12th?”, “How are England higher than Netherlands when Netherlands reached the final of World Cup 2012?”
Still bewildered by what I had seen, there was clearly only one option: I must look into how FIFA calculate the rankings.
History and current calculation
Since the introduction of the first ranking system by FIFA in August 1993, there have been three ranking systems used. The first ranking system was extremely simplistic, with 3 points awarded for a win and 1 point for a draw. As a result it was heavily criticised and a new system was introduced in 1999 which took into account a number of factors including the number of goals scored and conceded, the importance of a match, the strength of the region for which the team belongs and whether the match was played at home or away. Under this system all FIFA recognised senior men’s football matches over the last eight years were included.
Post the World Cup In July 2006, FIFA decided to change the ranking system again removing certain factors such as the number of goals scored and home or away advantage and adjusting the importance of different types of match used within the calculation methodology. Importantly this system, which is still used today, only takes into account matches played over the last four years.
A team’s FIFA ranking is calculated using the following formula; P = M x I x T x C, where
|M (Points for Match)||Win (3), Draw (1), Lose (0) Win on penalties (2), Lose on penalties (1)|
|I (Importance of Match)||Friendly match (1.0), Fifa World Cup qualifier or Confederation-level qualifier (2.5), Confederation level final competition or FIFA Confederations Cup (3.0) and FIFA World Cup competitions (4.0)|
|T (Strength of Opposing Team)||T = (200 – ranking position of opponent)/100, where #1 team and #150 team are assigned the value of 200 and 50 respectively|
|C (Strength of Confederation)||Confederations are UEFA/CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, AFC/CAF and OFC. The strength factor is between 1 and 0.85 and is based on the number of victories by teams belonging to the Confederation at the last 3 FIFA World Cups|
So are FIFA world rankings important?
Are FIFA world rankings used for anything in particular or are they just facts like the Top 100 Most Attractive Women or Wealthiest Celebrities? The answer is a very simple ... they are extremely important! FIFA uses the rankings to determine seedlings for competitions, which ultimately means England are less likely to face the best European teams in qualifying rounds and the best international teams in the group stages of major competitions – which should “in theory” mean they have a higher chance of progressing to the later stages of major competitions.
So why are England higher than Brazil?
From the formula it is clear that FIFA place a large emphasis on the ‘Importance of a Match’ and ‘Strength of an opposing team’ to calculate a team’s ranking. Apart from England and Brazil, the remaining Top 20 FIFA ranked teams are mainly European (13), with only four from South America and one from Africa. As a result Euro 2012 and the qualifying rounds provided England with the opportunity to accrue a larger number of points by playing a higher number of ‘more important’ games against ‘higher ranked’ teams than Brazil, who had to instead had play a larger number of friendly matches and a few Copa America matches against generally lower ranked teams.
So is there a better way of ranking teams?
Based on the belief that teams who perform best in major competitions are in fact the strongest, one suggestion for improving the current system would be to give games played in major competitions more emphasis through increasing the values used for the ‘Importance of Match’ or through keeping this games exempt from weightings applied to account for how recent the games were.
Looking at the FIFA world ranking points accrued by England, Uruguay, Netherlands and Brazil over the last four years we can see the impact that providing more emphasis to recent games has on the number of points a team accrues
Team Order: England, Uruguay, Netherlands, Brazil
If we were to remove all weightings, so that games played more recently do not have more emphasis than those played four years ago, we would see Netherlands jump above England in the rankings. This scenario could help factor in a team’s recent poor performance due to injuries.
Team Order: Netherlands, England, Uruguay, Brazil
Alternatively we could give more emphasis to games played in a World Cup year. Ideally we would only given more emphasis to World Cup Final matches, but using this more simplistic approach we would see Netherlands jump above Uruguay (and only a few points behind England) in the World Rankings – mainly as a result of them finishing as runners-up at the 2010 World Cup.
Team Order: England, Netherlands, Uruguay, Brazil
Another option would be too adopt a brand new system such as the Elo rating system, which is based on calculating the relative skills of two player games such as chess and currently tanks England 4th and Brazil 3rd.
So given England are 10 places higher than Brazil, are England more likely to win the 2014 World Cup in Rio?
Based on previous performances in major competitions I would say it is unlikely. Clearly the ranking system does not account for all factors influencing performance such as home advantage or England’s ability to play in extreme heat (or perhaps even the impact of sleep deprivation caused by WAGs partying all night at carnivals and players consuming too many caipirinhas), so if I were you I wouldn’t use it as single source of information for making a few bets at the bookies.
As for this evening’s match, England should win based on the rankings system. But I’m still going to be wearing my lucky shirt!