Much has been made of South Africa's current FIFA ranking of 83 being the lowest of any team in World Cup history. In fact, many wrote them off as having no hope of the ignominious tag of being the first host to fail to make it through to the second round based on their ranking.
American sports fans and journalists are used to polls and rankings, especially in the college football and basketball arenas and apply that same reasoning to the FIFA rankings.
They do this because they have little or no idea how the FIFA rankings are determined.
College rankings are completely subjective, whether determined by writers or coaches; they reflect current form almost entirely. FIFA rankings are completely objective and are based on a complex formula. Moreover, FIFA takes results from the past four years into consideration. The current year is worth 100 points then 50, 30, and 20, so the previous three years are equal to the current one year.
FIFA rankings are important in one respect: they're used to determine seeding in qualifying tournaments, particularly in Europe where teams are divided into eight or nine groups.
Other factors are strength of opposition and the nature of the game. Friendlies are weighted a lot less than meaningful games such as tournament qualifying games with tournament games such as Continental Cup's and above all the World Cup being valued far higher.
This obviously makes sense.
With this ranking system a big improvement or a big decline is reflected very gradually in the standings.
The Top 10 remain relatively permanent and contain all the top powers who have their ups and downs, but even during down times still play well enough to beat most teams. Outside the top teams fortunes come and go far more frequently.
South Africa have been truly awful the past few years, more because of turmoil and coaching than from a lack of talent. It was so bad that they didn't qualify for the African Cup of Nations, which was combined with World Cup qualifying.
In the African Cup, 16 teams qualify and a couple of losses to mediocre teams were embarrassing. Since the appointment of Carlos Alberto Parreira as coach South Africa has turned it around and are unbeaten in their last 13 games.
The flip side of South Africa is Greece, which is currently ranked 13.
Because of this, their loss to South Korea, ranked 47, was considered an upset. Greece qualified out of the weakest group in Europe and a string of poor recent results suggested they had problems.
Should the system be changed?
A subjective poll would create headaches as to who gets to vote. National bias would almost certainly skew results no matter how objective those voting try to be.
Should the system be tweaked? Most definitely. Current year results should far outweigh previous years.
The bottom line is once you understand how the rankings work, you will pay far less attention to the value of rankings, especially outside the Top 10.
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