In defence of the FIFA World Rankings

Every month or so FIFA release a ranking of all the national teams in the world. The rankings are widely mocked for their inaccurate representation of the relative qualities of international sides, but is this fair?

Fans and journalists alike mocked England’s recent position of fourth in the rankings. Twitter was ablaze with laughter (or “lolz”) as Capello’s men were placed above both Brazil and Argentina. Now, the problem with world rankings is that they are based on facts, they aren’t based upon feelings that the England team is under-performing or not very good. And the fact is that since the World Cup England have only lost one match (against France in a friendly). In the other nine games they drew three (Switzerland – who beat #1 ranked Spain in the last World Cup, Montenegro – now ranked 16th in the world and Ghana – one of the top sides in Africa) and won the other six. It’s actually quite a good record. The truth is that England are very efficient in dispatching the weaker international sides (where many other major nations slip up). For this reason don’t think it’s incorrect or unfair to label England the Zlatan Ibrahimović of international football. To give some context into England improved ranking in the past month Argentina have lost a couple of matches, one a 4-1 hammering in Nigeria, and the other a 2-1 loss to Poland. Both of these matches were played with what can only be described as “C squads”, but as they are full internationals they count towards the FIFA rankings. As I said earlier, these rankings are based on facts, not feelings.

In addition to Argentina’s poor form there are more reasons why England found themselves leapfrogging over Brazil and Argentina. England’s excellent form over the past few years (they’ve only lost six matches in their last thirty-six) puts them ahead of the vast majority of footballing nations. The South American countries weren’t helped by the slightly different scheduling of the Copa America (In 2007 it was held in June, this year it’s being held in July). As FIFA rankings are based on results of the past four years it meant that all of the South American sides lost a whole bunch of points. Brazil lost 295, Argentina lost 288, Uruguay (185), Chile (185) and Paraguay (104) also lost points due to the quirks of this system. It’s a cast iron guarantee that both Brazil and Argentina will leapfrog England after the 2011 Copa America where they will almost certainly pick up a lot of ranking points.

Another anomaly often used in an attempt to discredit the FIFA world rankings is the placing of Norway in 11th. This is despite the Norwegians having failed to qualify for a World Cup or European Championships in quite some time. Yet they will be a first seed for the World Cup 2014 qualification at the end of this month.. Their position can be explained by their excellent results in friendlies and their decent, if not spectacular, form in qualifying. Over the past few years they have beaten France, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland, Montenegro and Slovakia in friendly internationals. Despite friendlies being worth less than competitive matches, these excellent results have been enough to catapult Norway to the brink of the top ten.

Detractors of the rankings will state that international friendlies are meaningless training sessions where multiple substitutions can distort the final result. Whilst I have a great deal of sympathy for this point of view and feel that the whole international friendly calendar needs a review, I feel that it would be unwise of FIFA to further reduce the importance of friendlies by removing the  carrot of FIFA ranking points. It would be grossly unfair to penalise Norway for taking these friendly internationals more seriously and with more professionalism than those countries who treat them with disdain.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that the current FIFA World Rankings are perfect. They are not. For example it’s very odd that all matches in the CONCACAF Gold Cup involving Guadeloupe aren’t included in the rankings as Guadeloupe are not a full FIFA member. At the same time teams in South America will be gaining rankings points by defeating the U23 sides of Costa Rica and Mexico in this summer’s Copa America. I also think that despite results in different confederations being weighted slightly differently that the rankings between nations 100+ in the world between different confederations is often not quite right. I have no evidence to back up this claim but I feel that Azerbaijan would be able to defeat the higher ranked Antigua & Barbuda. And I guess that’s the problem. There is a lack of data to build the rankings from as most countries only play 8-10 matches in a year, and very rarely against teams of another confederation; especially if they aren’t in the top 50 of the world.

To go back to my initial point, one of the most annoying aspects of the criticism of the World Rankings by journalists is that they very rarely, if ever, offer an alternative improvement to the world ranking system (that is if we feel there is a point to ranking sides, and I think it is important if we want to have nations seeded before championship draws). They merely sneer at the rankings without any thought to how they are compiled, rather than offering solutions to the supposed problem. So, in order to practice what I preach I’d like to endorse the ELO Rankings system as the one to replace the World Rankings.

Using ELO rankings isn’t an original idea.  It’s not even original within FIFA as they already use the system to compile the world rankings for women’s international football. The current ELO rankings list England in a far more reasonable 6th place and as you’d expect Spain are the current number one side (as they are in the FIFA World Ranking). It’s a rankings calculation that has been in use in chess for a long time and rather than using a data-set of results from the last four years it uses all international results throughout history to calculate the current world ranking (obviously matches that happened this year have more importance than those played 100 years ago, but they all have an impact in deciding who currently deserves the title of #1 in the world).

I don’t suppose that FIFA will be changing their ranking system any time soon – though it did undergo a huge overhaul sometime around 2006 (Norway managed to reach 2nd in the rankings in their previous incarnation). It would be fascinating to know why the FIFA men’s ranking uses a bespoke FIFA system rather than ELO, especially when you consider that the FIFA women’s rankings use the more well known system. I could email FIFA and ask, but I doubt they’d respond, they’re not exactly known for transparency, are they?

If you are affected by any of the issues in this articles then please visit http://www.football-rankings.info where they’ll be more than happy to explain exactly what’s going on in the current world of rankings. Also, if you want to know how FIFA calculate their rankings a PDF explaining the system can be found on their website.

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