Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Time to Revamp the FIFA Rankings

The latest FIFA rankings have been released and, as usual, to the average fan they seem like a complete joke.

Most people will focus on the teams in the top ten and question how England are suddenly ranked fourth in the world after being outplayed so comprehensively by sixth-ranked Italy. England are now, according to FIFA, ranked above Argentina (7) and Brazil (11). I'm sure fans throughout the world can point to many similar questionable rankings.

When people see the rankings they don't realise that they are not intended to be predictive, but instead historical. Take any two teams and the rankings aren't meant to show which team is more likely to win a match between them, but rather which team has garnered the most points over the last five years according to a fairly complicated set of rules. (We should be grateful that in this case, at least, the ranking system is transparent and can be found on FIFA's website, along with how many points each team earned in each game they played in the last month.)

The problem is, not only does the ranking system fail to be a good indicator of teams' current strength; it also fails miserably at indicating teams' historical strength. One glance at the Oceania rankings provides all the proof necessary.

Unbelievably, in the just released rankings, Samoa are ranked one place above the Solomon Islands. Anyone who follows the game in Oceania knows that the Solomon Islands are easily one of the four best teams in the region. Samoa, on the other hand, are clearly one of the four worst.

The results in the recent Oceania Nations Cup proved this. While the Solomons were defeating Papua New Guinea, drawing with Fiji and New Zealand, and losing narrowly 0-1 to eventual winners Tahiti and 3-4 to New Zealand in the 3rd place match, Samoa were being pounded 10-1, 5-0 and 9-0 in their three group games against Tahiti, Vanuatu and New Caledonia respectively.

But Samoa stayed above the Solomon Islands by virtue of the points they picked up in the First Round in December 2011, when they achieved a draw and two wins by a single goal in home matches against the Cook Islands, Tonga and American Samoa. These unconvincing results against some of the weakest teams in international football had moved Samoa from eleventh all the way up to second in Oceania, behind only New Zealand.

And therein lies the major problem with the FIFA rankings in my opinion. The rankings for teams who don't play many competitive matches are dramatically skewed.

Unfortunately, there just isn't the money in the Oceania region for teams to play lots of games on an ongoing basis. While European teams are playing eight to twelve matches in every Euro and World Cup Qualifying cycle, teams in Oceania often go a whole year without a game. Because the FIFA Rankings divide the points gained by a minimum of eight to get an average per match, countries that play fewer than eight games in a year are at a huge disadvantage.

Every four years the Oceania nations play in a combined Oceania Nations Cup/World Cup Qualifying event, resulting in three (for most teams) to a maximum of about twelve games (for the best few teams) in the four-year cycle. In all likelihood, only New Zealand will play any meaningful friendlies, and even these are limited by the difficulty in gaining releases for their players from their European, Australian and American clubs, meaning that they often can't play their strongest team. (In fact New Zealand had to play their Oceania Nations Cup matches without their two Premier League defenders, Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid.)

As well as unfairly penalising nations who play fewer than eight matches in a year, the ranking system also fails to take into account who the opponents are in a defeat. A team like New Zealand, for example, would earn the same number of points for a last-minute 4-3 loss to Spain in the World Cup as they would for a 5-0 loss to the Turks & Caicos Islands. Zero. Similarly, a 0-0 draw with the bottom ranked team would be worth more than a 4-3 loss to Spain.

That is ridiculous. There has to be a way to reward narrow losses to the best team in the world, or conversely, punish bad losses to very weak teams by awarding negative points.

People may ask what does it matter what the rankings are? They're only a bit of a fun, after all. The problem is, they're not. In the past they have been used to determine whether players should be awarded work permits for professional European clubs and also to determine seedings for World Cup or Nations Cup qualifying draws.

It is therefore imperative that the rankings as closely as possible fairly reflect the achievements of each team. Currently they are not doing that.

I don't know what the ideal formula is, but there must be statisticians who could come up with a better system. (The World Football ELO Ratings and ESPN's SPI Rankings are two alternate systems that on the face of it appear to have better outcomes, although the methodologies each use is open to debate.)

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