How should we rank football teams?

Any football fan taking a look at the latest FIFA World Rankings will always have a moment of pause where they think: “Hang on, how is this team higher than that team?”  It’s a problem that has existed since the dawn of the table back in 1993, and the way in which FIFA decides which country is better than another has consistently flummoxed the general population in football with its unusual placements.  Football’s top organisation can’t win when it comes to deciding who is better than whom.

The crux of the problem is that the FIFA World Rankings are entirely based on maths and not actual qualitative assessments of the teams playing.  The world rankings are calculated based on results over the last four years with different factors, such as importance of each match and quality of opposition, coming into play to decide the final numbers.  Explaining them both takes a long time and the calculations certainly don’t lend themselves to on-the-fly updates in the pub after a game, but its complexity would be forgiven if they produced results that seemed fair.  Football fans don’t generally consider their teams’ next opponents in a statistical frame of mind when thinking about how the game will go, they look at how the team is playing, that team’s important recent results and what they have done in the past.  Should the World Rankings reflect this nature of football as well?

The Cape Verde Islands are stealing a march on the World Rankings at the moment ahead of Wales, Scotland, Sweden, Turkey and African heavyweights such as Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal.  To the average football fan this doesn’t appear to be right, as the side only began to compete in World Cup qualifiers back in 2000, have never appeared at a World Cup and being a country of just 512,000 people have never produced any real stars of the game.  It certainly appears strange that they rank behind Ghana, who ran Germany close in the World Cup and reached the semi-finals of the last Africa Nations Cup.

Is it just ignorance on the part of the average football fan though that we don’t give nations such as Cape Verde their due?  They came second in their World Cup qualifying group, and reached the quarter-finals of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.  Maybe they are a better side than they are given credit for by those that baulk at their status.  In the world game it’s understandable that fans can’t keep track of how every team is playing, so having the World Rankings as an objective measure of a team’s recent results is important so that fans can quickly get up to speed for matches or tournaments; but if they see results that seem completely out of the usual then their faith in the rankings is lost and they stop serving their purpose.

An alternative to the FIFA World Rankings is the World Football ELO Ratings, which take a more simplified approach to calculating a team’s current ranking.  Built based off of the system used for chess’ world rankings, the ELO Ratings change teams’ ratings on a game by game basis and nothing more.  These are generally better at taking into account the weight of a result, as they include goal difference and home advantage whereas the FIFA rankings do not.   The ELO Ratings also doesn’t include a second, more arbitrary, weighting of teams like the FIFA World Rankings does – one which heavily favours European and South American teams.  The ELO rankings may appear fairer and more on the money that the official Rankings do, but can be slower to react to a team’s changing status on the international stage.  Again though, it doesn’t take a holistic view of international football – just on the results of the teams’ games.

Perhaps international football should adopt a similar system to the likes of tennis and golf, where success in tournaments is what drives the rankings rather than individual game-by-game results?  It is certainly the performances of teams in tournaments that fans remember and these are the games where the true talent of players and teams shines through.  However, with major football tournaments coming around only once every few years for international teams, is this going to give a true reflection on a month-by-month basis of how good a football team actually is?

I think what is necessary is a fundamental redesign of how football rankings work to take into account both the match-by-match nature of teams’ performances as well as their ability to perform when it counts in major championship.  At the moment, there is weighting of individual results in the World Rankings but this is as simple as ranging from a multiplier of 4 in World Cup matches to a multiplier of 1 for friendlies, with an equivalent score of 60 for World Cup matches and 20 for friendlies in the ELO Ratings’ slightly more complicated equation.  Results from an entire year are counted and averaged for the World Rankings, which creates an uneven system whereby a team that plays and wins friendlies can be bested by teams that opt not to play friendlies.  Switzerland were seeded at the 2014 World Cup because they chose to avoid unnecessary games in the run up to the draw (which was seeded by World Rankings) and replaced Holland, who would have been ranked higher than the Swiss had they not chosen to play low-ranked Indonesia, who they beat 3-0.  It seems fundamentally unfair that a team who were beaten in extra-time in the previous World Cup final and reached Euro 2012 were outranked by a team who only reached the Last 16 of the same World Cup and failed to qualify for the Euros.

An ideal system, for me, would take a tennis style approach, by averaging out result scores (perhaps using a modified ELO equation) at certain levels of international football and then adding them together to provide a more rounded view of how good an international team is.  The three ‘levels’ would be:

World Cup, Continental Championships and Confederations Cup

World Cup & Continental Championship qualifiers

Friendlies

The results from each level would be weighted differently, perhaps in a 30-50-20 model – to make the results in games that matter really count.  Another difference I would include is the introduction of bonuses for making it through the stages of qualifying or tournaments, so that actual tangible performance is rewarded as well.  An example would be 50 points for automatically qualifying, 30 points for qualifying through the play-offs, 20 points for reaching the play-offs and 10 points for finishing just outside in the group.  Of course in tournaments, the points bonuses would be more self-explanatory with extra points awarded for each stage reached.  I feel that this would make the rankings a better representation of how good different teams are, and that it can be used as a comparison of a team’s capabilities.

There is no perfect solution to shoehorning the qualitative art of football into a mathematical model to decide which team is objectively better than the other.  But with the importance of the rankings for use in seeding international competitions, it’s time for FIFA to really take a look at the issue and make a system where fans can really figure out the strength of their national team.

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