FIFA’s version sucks, but any ranking will fall short

Another international break is upon us, and for summer leagues like MLS and the Brazil’s Série A, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. With only a few games left to play, the majority of clubs in both leagues would prefer to have all hands on deck for the home stretch. Now they face losing their best players to national teams, some of which are only friendly matches.

In light of this unfortunate conflict, there are still arguments national team managers can make to beleaguered club coaches for the importance of international friendlies. For example, coaches need to give players with fewer caps vital senior national team experience and to experiment with rosters and tactical formations. There is one case for international friendlies, however, that you rarely hear any manager mention: boosting FIFA rankings.

The mere mention of the FIFA World Rankings is often enough to trigger universal eye-rolling among soccer fans. Though FIFA has stated in the past the rankings are “a reliable measure for comparing national A-teams“, for many supporters, the list is so tiresomely inaccurate and its purpose so abstract that many choose to ignore it altogether. After all, teams seem to move up and down the list each month based on the flimsiest of reasons. Colombia, for example, lost its only post-World Cup match 1-0, yet the team moved up into third place because the Netherlands lost two games, including a friendly against Italy.

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Rankings current as of Oct. 9, 2014. Team nos. 6 through 10: Brazil (1291 pts.); Uruguay (1243); Spain (1228); France (1202); Switzerland (1175). The highest ranked teams from other confederations: Algeria (Africa, 20); Costa Rica (CONCACAF, 15); Iran (Asia, 44); New Zealand (Oceania, 118). (Graphic credit: Alejandra Aristizabal/Fusion)

Moreover, the rankings themselves often look faintly ridiculous when held up against conventional wisdom. In the most recent version, the major trophy-less Belgium is ranked fifth in the world, one place above five-time World Cup champions and 2014 semifinalists Brazil and three spots above 2010 World Cup champs Spain. Cape Verde Islands are somehow ranked ahead of Cameroon, Iran and Japan – all teams who qualified for the 2014 World Cup. Despite FIFA’s finely tuned algorithm, overhauled in 1999 and further revised in 2006, the rankings — based on a point system primarily weighted by match result, importance of match, quality of opposition and strength of confederation — are still roughly correct at best, mindless and arbitrary at worst.

Even so, FIFA’s world rankings are still used to seed international competitions like the World Cup, where a top seed can have a major effect on tournament performance. Of the seven top-seeded teams at Brazil 2014, six progressed out of their groups. Four went on to the quarterfinals. The finalists Germany and Argentina were two top-seeded teams. Because geographical balance is given priority over overall national team quality in World Cup qualification, getting a top seed in the World Cup can mean the difference between getting an easy group and being drawn into a Group of Death (Portugal walked that unfortunate line this summer).

Yet hoping for a fortunate World Cup draw realistically applies to only a handful of teams at the top; even then, it only applies once every four years. For most national teams, and in most instances, rankings are a scientifically dubious diagnostic tool to judge their progress (or lack thereof).

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The different methodologies of FIFA, Elo, and SPI all produce the same top ranked team: World champion Germany. Argentina, runner-up at Brazil 2014, is in the top three per all three systems, with the Netherlands sitting third (FIFA) and sixth (SPI) on the other two lists.(Graphic credit: Alejandra Aristizabal/Fusion)

So how to improve them? Some critics have long argued in favour of the Elo ranking alternative, which gives greater weight to historical greatness. Others believe FIFA rankings would improve by taking into consideration some crucial missing factors. Business Insider writer Tony Manfred, for example, noted the rankings do not account for goal differential or home-field advantage. He pointed to Nate Silver’s Soccer Power Index rating as a superior measurement.

No doubt the inclusion of certain missing elements could improve FIFA’s leaden point system. Yet even the most complex, statistically accurate method cannot overcome the core problem with ranking international teams: small sample size.

The reason any international ranking system will only ever be broadly correct is because there simply aren’t enough games to base them on, even in years with tournaments like the World Cup or the European Championship. Manchester City, for example, played 57 competitive matches in the 2013-14 season, while the English national team played 9 competitive games in the same span. That includes its three World Cup matches.

Even worse, the small number of international games often take place between opponents of wildly varying quality. Whereas a league team will play a set number of opponents in the same tier both home and away, international teams play a small set of tournament qualification matches against randomly drawn regional opponents and friendlies against any team their associations manage to lineup.

All this means random variation– a bad day at the office, some tough friendly opponents, weather, bad managerial decisions, injuries, travel; i.e., what most of us would call luck — has an outsized influence on the results. And that affects all international ranking systems, no matter how nuanced they might be.

Tweaking FIFA’s current methodology will no doubt bring an improvement to world rankings, but small sample will continue to skew results, meaning even the “best” ranking system will provoke debate. The FIFA rankings suck, yes, and they could suck less. But the sparse international calendar means we can only judge the objective quality of national teams through a glass, darkly.

It also means those few national team games that are played each year, even friendlies, count for a lot. While we may not like it, a better FIFA ranking can lead to further local investment in the sport, better seeding for regional tournaments, a better chance at future success. That alone may be argument enough for national teams to do all they can to put out their best starting XI, even if it is “only a friendly.”

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