The Curious Case of the FIFA World Rankings, Where England Outclass Brazil

Will Tidey@willtideySenior Manager, GlobalAugust 9, 2012

KIEV, UKRAINE - JUNE 24: Ashley Young of England is consoled after missing his penalty during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between England and Italy at The Olympic Stadium on June 24, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

England have hit an all-time high of third in the FIFA world rankings for August. Only Spain and Germany are above them, while Brazil—favorites to win their 2014 home World Cup—are down in 13th place.

"What?" you say. "The England team who couldn't string two passes together at Euro 2012 and barely had the ball in their quarterfinal loss to Italy...higher in the rankings than Copa America winners Uruguay? Higher than the Brazil of Neymar, Oscar, Leandro Damiao and Co.?"

"How. Does. This. Happen?"

Well, here's the math. FIFA works out the number of points (P) awarded for each match by using the following calculation:

P = M x I x T x C

M stands for the number of points the team would have collected in league play—so three for a win, one for a draw, none for a loss (two for winning a penalty shootout, one for losing one). I is the deemed "importance" of the match (World Cups count greater than friendlies, for example). T is a score given to the opponent based on their most recent ranking (200 for the team ranked first, 199 for the team in second, and so on). C is a weighting given to the confederation an opponent belongs to.

Here's a working example, based on Spain's Euro 2012 final win against Italy.

P = 3 (M) x 3 (I) x 188 (T) x 1 (C) = 1,692 points

Each nation then gets a score based on their last four years of competition—being 100 percent of their average points total for the last 12 months, plus 50 percent of their average for the year previous to that, then 30 percent and 20 percent respectively for years three and four of the cycle.

This being math, there's no room for artistic merit. Like football itself, results rule and everything else is incidental. You can forget your dizzying possession numbers and golazos, and you can park the bus for eternity without a points penalty.

Hence, England are third. Because, while you can bemoan their style of play and failure to win a major tournament since 1966, they're still one of the most effective teams in the world at getting results.

England won five and drew three of their eight qualifying games for Euro 2012. And when they got there, as unconvincing as they were, Roy Hodgson's team still avoided outright defeat—winning twice and drawing twice, with Italy beating them on penalties in the last eight. They've also beaten Spain in a friendly in the past year.

Brazil, meanwhile, have not played a competitive fixture since the 2011 Copa America—where they fell at the quarterfinal stage to Paraguay, who were ranked 25th at the time. Since then, Brazil have played only friendlies and lost games to Germany, Mexico and Argentina.

There's no question teams outside Europe are at a disadvantage in FIFA's most recent rankings however. Euro 2012 gave 16 teams the chance to play matches of high importance against high-ranked opponents; thus, far more points were available than could possibly have been accrued elsewhere.

Considering Brazil don't have to qualify for the World Cup (hosts enter automatically), their ranking is likely to remain relatively low until we get there. Friendlies are scored with an importance of 1.0 by FIFA, while qualifiers come in at 2.5.

This means a victory for Brazil against Sweden (ranked 17th) in August would bring them 552 points. When you consider England can pick up 1,155 for beating Poland (ranked 54th) in a World Cup qualifier, it's easy to see the advantage—in rankings terms—of being involved in competitive matches.

In global terms, there's also a big advantage to being members of the UEFA (Europe) and CONMEBOL (South America) confederations, where there is more value put on success and more opportunity to play high-ranking teams.

But just because there's a rationale in FIFA's thinking doesn't mean its ranking system is a true reflection of teams' relative strengths. And when you consider FIFA rankings directly affect the seedings for the World Cup draw, it's little wonder questions are being asked of the process.

In researching this piece I looked at all 31 games at Euro 2012 to see how accurately the June rankings were reflected in their results. I found that eight of the matches were won by the lower-ranking team (see chart below). A further six games saw teams with a clear higher ranking (which I deemed to be more than five places above their opponent) held to draws or taken to penalties.

That amounts to 45 percent of matches at Euro 2012 going against the FIFA rankings.

Matches that overturned FIFA ranking at Euro 2012
Greece (15) 1-2 Czech Republic (27)
Greece (15) 1-0 Russia (13)
Netherlands (4) 0-1 Denmark (9)
Denmark (9) 2-3 Portugal (10)
Portugal (10) 2-1 Netherlands (4)
Ukraine (52) 2-1 Sweden (17)
Sweden (17) 2-0 France (14)
Germany (2) 1-2 Italy (12)

Many agree there's something not quite right. FIFA's ranking system has been widely criticized, and its general secretary Jerome Valcke was moved to make a statement in June addressing the high volume of negative comments.

Said Valcke, as per ESPN:

I know that these rankings are sometimes quite difficult to understand due to the level and numbers of criteria that are taken into account.

There are teams who are playing more friendly games than other teams and you can see a difference which is not very logical—but the ranking, I would say, is clearly still a good picture of the level of international football.

There have been internal meetings to discuss the ranking of the different nations. We want to be able to explain in an easier way how this ranking is based.

To be fair to FIFA, it's far easier to knock the system than it is to come up with an alternative. What's more, any change to the calculation would result in as many nations being disappointed as were satisfied.

One thing that does seem to make sense is allowing points gained at major tournaments to linger with greater influence, for longer. Uruguay won the Copa America in July 2011 and have gone unbeaten in friendlies since.

Put simply, they couldn't have done any more to influence their position. Yet still they find themselves  below England, who were knocked out of Euro 2012 at the quarterfinals and lost a friendly to the Netherlands in February. That just doesn't seem right.

England up to best-ever position of 3rd in latest edition of FIFA's ludicrous World Rankings, above Uruguay, Italy, Argentina, Netherlands

— Dan Roan (@danroan) August 8, 2012

That said, maybe England have finally found a competition they can thrive in. It's not the World Cup, and it's not the Euros. The Three Lions are roaring up the world rankings, and who knows, they might even hit the top spot one day.

You could say they're in danger of becoming football's answer to Luke Donald.


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