As Fifa gather in Brazil this Friday for the draw for the World Cup Groups, focus is even sharper on the Fifa rankings system which decides who the top seven teams are which will (alongside the host nation) lead each of the eight groups. The rankings are organised on a points basis, judged over the previous four years but with most emphasis on the last year before World Cup qualification.
For those who take an occasional passing interest in the Fifa rankings table once every four years (a cursory glance perhaps to see where England stands – 10th right now, as it happens, and consequently unseeded), you are always likely to come away with a shake of the head and a mild curiosity about how Fifa, yet again, can get things so wrong.
But thanks to the work of guys like Eduard Ranghiuc who runs the website: http://www.football-rankings.info/, you learn two very important lessons:
One: It is a mind bogglingly complex task to ‘value’ in points games between national teams because there are all sorts of international games (friendlies; WC and Federation qualifiers; Federation championships (and don’t forget the useless Confederations Cup too) and, of course, WC competition games themselves).
Some national teams play many more games a year than others, however, depending on how far they go in qualifiers and the subsequent competitions themselves and, of course, on how many friendlies they play including, it turns out, WHO you play in those friendlies (see below).
If you’re a rather ‘sexy’ football nation (Brazil and Spain, for example), you will get many more – and more lucrative – offers than most others to play friendlies (and you will also probably go all the way to the final stages of the competitions you enter).
There’s a tricky little equation to work out the points for each international match you play, which depends on these factors: the result; the importance of the game; how good the opposing team is (in terms of its Fifa ranking) and the strength of the Federation of which it is a member (with Europe & South America ranked the strongest). Got all that? Good.
Two: As an unintended consequence, if you play the ‘wrong’ kind of friendlies (particularly against low ranking nations from ‘weak’ Federations), you’ll slide down the Fifa scale, even if you batter them.
For example, it looks like Holland, placed 8th in the rankings, missed the cut by a mere two points because they played a friendly game against a former Dutch colony, Indonesia; a weak team in a weak federation. The Dutch only earned 139.5 points for beating them.
If instead they had played a friendly against a ‘weak’ Uefa team, like Finland or Ireland for example, they’d have got 400 points for a win. As it was, the Swiss beat Holland to the 7th spot by a mere two points, and got seeded ahead of the Dutch (and ahead of Italy & England too).
If Fifa ignored all friendlies points-wise, then both Holland and Italy would have been in 5th and 6th place respectively in the Fifa rankings, and consequently both would have been seeded for the Group stage of next summer’s World Cup.
Once the website guy, Eduard Ranghiuc; a Romanian, realised the seeding significance of who you choose to play friendlies against, he wrote to the English FA last April to warn them against choosing friendlies against ‘weak’ nations (or to make any such matches ‘unofficial’ by using more than six subs during the game). The FA ignored him and lost out on that vital 7th place by 56 points.
Like my Mum used to say to me: ‘Be careful who you make friends with…’
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.
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