So on Thursday, FIFA released their latest round of world rankings. South Korea dropped nine places to 47th in the world. If we choose to take these rankings seriously that means (and with all due respect to the mentioned countries) that Korea is weaker than the likes of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Norway, Algeria, Zambia, Panama, and Tunisia. It also means, it theory, that South Korea does not deserve to go to the World Cup as one of the best 32 teams in the world (although looking at it from a different angle, they would as the 4th best Asian team).Personally, I’ve never put much stock in the FIFA rankings. Trying to assess how strong a team is based on a game or two every two or three months seems a bit ridiculous. If you are unsure about how FIFA calculates their rankings, you can read the full run-down here or this brief summary. For each match, FIFA takes four things into consideration. The result, the importance of the match, the team you’re playing, and the confederation they come from.
Result is a multiplier of 0, 1, or 3. Losing is 0. Drawing is 1. Winning is 3. So, elementary math reminder, if you lose, you get zero points for the match (since multiplying anything by 0 is 0).
Importance is based on the type of match it it. A friendly (1), World Cup qualifier (2.5), confederation championship (3), and World Cup match (4).
Team points are based on the latest rankings. To get the team points you subtract the team’s ranking from 200. If the team is first, like Spain is now, they are worth 200 points. If the team is below 150th, they are automatically worth 50 points.
Confederation is a mathematical calculation based on the performance of their teams. I don’t fully understand this part, but you can read it yourself at the above link. In short, UEFA and CONMEBOL are 1, CONCACAF is 0.88, AFC and CAF are 0.86, and OFC is 0.72.
After you’ve calculated the individual match points, then you need to calculate the year points. *Note, and I may be wrong, but I believe the term “year” is used loosely. It would be more accurate to describe it as a rolling 12 month period. Which is how Korea has 219 points for 2013 when we have only played one match (which we lost). The year points is an average, but it’s influenced by the number of matches the team has played in that period. If you play five or more matches then you get the full average (total points divided by number of matches). If you only played four matches then you get 80% of the average. Three matches earns you 60% of the average. Two matches only gets 40% of the average. And finally, one match gets you a measly 20%.
Finally, we’re done right? No, not quite. The final step is to add the last four years together, but, like everything else there is a hitch. That hitch is a weighted average of those last four years. The current year is 100%, the previous year is 50%, two years ago is 30%, and three years ago is 20%.
If you would like to see detailed examples of how this all shakes out, check out the link above. FIFA has shown how the math works. I’ll do a very short example here.
Say Korea plays a World Cup qualifiying match against Team X. Korea wins. Team X is an AFC team, and is ranked 50th in the last round of FIFA rankings. Korea’s points for the match are calculated thusly (remember the formula? P = M x I x T x C).
Match result – 3 (because Korea won)
Importance of match – 2.5 (qualifier)
Team strength – 150 (200-50)
Confederation strength – 0.86 (AFC strength)
Alright, get your calculators out. Ready! Shiiiiiiii . . . jak! (if you didn’t know that’s Korean for start -> 시작). I’ll wait for you to finish (imagine the Jeopardy music is playing). Did you get the same answer I did? Don’t cheat now. I got 967.5. Wow! Great, right. Oh yeah. We need to do the average. So, let’s pretend the team has played three matches in the past 12 months already, and has earned 1800 points. Still have those calculators? Then add 1800 and 967.5, then divide by 4. Answer? 691.88. But, final step. Since we’ve only played four matches, we only get 80% of that average. So, 691.88 x 0.8 = 553.5. And that, in a nut shell is how the FIFA world rankings work.
So, what does it all mean. Well, the short answer is that FIFA is trying to come up with some way to say which team is the best in the world. However, as I’m sure you’ve realized, there are some issues with the current system. The first of which is that they take results from four years ago into account. While I realize the desire to acknowledge past accomplishments, such as winning a World Cup, European championship, etc. is present, given the nature of how fast international squads change, it seems odd to include such a long past.
Secondly, the use of averages. Averages are meant to smooth out outliers and abnormalities. In football, that means unusually good runs (like Greece at Euro 2004) are not given as much weight as say, decent, consistent results (like England). England is currently ranked 4th in the world, and I don’t think there are many who truly believe the English squad is the fourth best in the world. But, England consistently makes it to major competitions and out of the group stages. Granted they usually lose in the round of 16 or quarterfinals, but that consistency allows them to earn significant points each year. By comparison, the 5th place team happens to be the team that knocked England out of the last Euro tournament. Italy. I think most would agree that the current Italy squad is better than the current England squad, and indeed in that match Italy dominated, although they couldn’t score. But Italy is “punished” in the current rankings because of their poor showing at South Africa and the following year.
England – 113 + 205 + 254 + 600
Italy – 105 + 119 + 301 + 647
In the past two years Italy has thoroughly outperformed England, but because of a bad year, three years ago, England is said to be the better team. Make sense? Not really.
In the past four years, Korea has amassed the following points: 62, 132, 186, 219.
In comparison Japan has picked up the following points: 70, 174, 133, 432.
What does it show. That Korea and Japan used to be fairly close in terms of performance. But lately Japan has really pulled away.
Which brings me to some final thoughts about the FIFA rankings.
1) The rankings are NOT a snapshot of who is better at the present time (when the rankings are released). Instead they are an indication of how a team has performed over the last four year cycle. When viewed through this lens, the rankings, particularly at the top make more sense.
2) The unbalanced scheduling of major continental tournaments skews the rankings. Since FIFA weights more recent results more heavily, and more games as more important, teams that have participated in a major continental tournament are given higher rankings over those whose tournament was awhile ago. Zambia was a big mover this past month due to a solid run at the Africa Cup of Nations. This string of games (and positive results) gives a huge point boost over teams that are only playing on designated international days.
3) Teams who play strong teams are “punished” by the zero points for losses.
So, in the end, all I’m trying to say is don’t take the rankings too seriously. They’re a bit of fun, but that’s all.