July 4th, 2012
02:55 PM ET

Are FIFA’s world rankings fit for purpose?

Despite a penalty shootout defeat to Italy, England are above the Azzuri in FIFA's world rankings.
Despite a penalty shootout defeat to Italy, England are above the Azzuri in FIFA's world rankings.

Like “Knock knock” jokes, FIFA’s soccer world rankings have long been a source of amusement but the latest list, putting England above Italy and Denmark above Brazil, is an embarrassment to the world’s most popular sport.

Some aspects of the current top 10 make sense. Spain, the record-breaking European and world champions, have increased their lead in first place ahead of an entertaining Germany team.

After their disappointing displays at Euro 2012, the Netherlands have fallen to 8th while Italy – the surprise success story from the recent tournament in Poland and Ukraine – are back into the top 10 having risen to 6th place.

However, that still puts the Azzurri behind England, the team they beat in a penalty shoot-out at the quarterfinal stage. While a victory on penalties suggests a close game, most neutral observers agreed the English had been thoroughly outplayed.

FIFA’s ranking is a complex process and the most crucial point is that it calculates positions based on results over a four-year period.

Essentially, it uses a formula that takes into account whether a team wins, loses or draws, added to how important the match is, the strength of the opposition and where they are from, to create a points score for every side each time they play.

Factoring in which confederation a team is from is an interesting part of the equation and a controversial one, according to Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc, who runs a football ranking website.

His understanding of FIFA’s rankings calculations led to him spotting errors in their sums. World football’s governing body now check his website before they release their figures.

Ranghiuc claims that teams from smaller confederations get fewer ranking points for the same result against the same opponents as, say, a side from Europe or South America. He prefers another ratings system, called Elo.

He told CNN: “As far as I can tell from comments I received on my blog and what I've read on various message boards, fans prefer Elo because it's more stable. You won't see teams shooting up 30 places after winning a match.”

“Elo doesn't punish teams for playing too many friendlies. Mexico for instance could be much higher if they would play fewer friendlies. All points gained are divided by the number of games. And then there's the usual distrust towards FIFA. You can't blame the fans.”

But even Elo doesn’t differ that drastically and I would go even further to try to make FIFA’s world rankings more intuitive. How about using a player rankings system – like the FIFA-backed Castrol Index – that gives each international squad an innate value?

Or issue ranking lists less frequently to avoid short-term ranking aberrations?

Golf’s world rankings have also been heavily criticized, with many experts unhappy that recent number ones include players like Lee Westwood and Luke Donald – who are yet to win any of the sport's four major titles, the most frequent barometer of success.

At the same time, golf's list is flexible enough to have quickly put Tiger Woods back up into the top four, from below 50th in the world, once he started winning again – and that is a true reflection of how he is rated and how well he is playing.

Ultimately, football’s world rankings need to “look” right at a glance. Two years before they host the World Cup, five-time winners Brazil are 11th in the world, below Denmark and Croatia, and I doubt even fans from those two European countries would agree their national sides are better than one containing Neymar, Pato, Kaka and the rest of the so-called Samba Boys.

The USA are down at 35th in the list despite their proud recent record in major competition.

It’s those sort of eyebrow-raising results that leave FIFA’s ranking system open to mockery.

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Filed under:  Football
soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Ray

    This is an op-ed, not a news article.

    Get a diary.

    July 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  2. matt hambleton

    Italy are only ranked in 10th place on the elo rankings. Usa are up to
    29th! Dizzy heights!!!

    July 4, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  3. Retspool

    FiFA rankings are based on an algorithm which includes the teams performance and is independent to mockery by questionable journalism like this one.

    Move on from soccer kiddo,

    July 4, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  4. rui

    after looking at the latest FIFA world rankings?? i had to pintch myself!! England # 4?????? What scoring system is FIFA working on?? it should be put to pastures like the current Board, the peoples game should have fresh blood pumped into it

    July 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  5. Mark Biram

    these latest ones are hard to justify. i'm english and i think us being 4th is a bit much, as a regular last 8 side, 7th or 8th would seem appropriate, i'm sure some people would have us 78th. it's very subjective!!

    i can understand uruguay being 3rd as they won copa america ahead of brazil and argentina, and they got to semis in the last world cup, so on current form, 3rd is logical. without the benefit of a 9-month league season we cannot see who is really 3rd or 4th. so i'm fine with it, just keep the info in context.....

    July 4, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  6. rog

    Is surreal how England is in 4th place....no comments

    July 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Reply
  7. Killian Donnellan

    The FIFA world rankings are a joke. Just look at the USA for example a few years ago, they beat teams like Panama and El Salvador and rise a lot of places in the rankings ahead of top quality teams that play tougher opposition in their matches

    July 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  8. Rich

    Before getting sniffy at the rating system look at the results from June for relevant teams:

    Nethlands w1 d0 l3 gd 3
    Brazil w0 d0 l2 gd-3
    England w3 d2 l0 gd 3
    Portugal w3 d1 l2 gd0
    Italy w2 d3 l2 gd-4

    The simple interpretation isn't that England set the world alight in a mythical world of fifa but that Brazil and the Netherlands slipped places due to poor results and the sum of the campaigns of Portugal and Italy weren't enough to jump ahead.

    Unless you want to score for artistic interpretation results are what you are stuck with for seeding...and if you like the idea of artistic interpretation scores maybe ice dancing or synchronized swimming are the sports for you...

    July 5, 2012 at 12:06 am | Reply
  9. Marcelle Hugues

    Absurd this new Fifa ranking.. What is it base on again?? England 4th place?
    I rest my case.

    July 5, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
  10. Frandle

    ^^^^^ no matter how you try to slice it, ENGLAND SHOULDN'T BE 4th! And again the results are supposedly based off 4 years.... Would you say England has been a top 4 team since the last Euros? HELL NO!

    FIFA's ranking system is just an opinion obviously... It just so happens that it's usually a pretty horrible one.

    July 5, 2012 at 10:08 am | Reply
  11. Tim

    It's an interesting article, until it gets to the bit where it complains about the US being in 35th place – "in spite of it's "proud recent record..."

    Let's not fool ourselves. The USA has come a long way in the last 10 or 20 years, but as a team it would be a poor Premier league (or reasonably good Championship) team were it a "club"...

    The fact that results are averaged over the last four years explains where England are today, but also remember they were one of the strongest teams in UEFA qualifying and only lost on penalties in the tournament. In truth, they could quite possibly have won the thing playing pretty ugly football. I wouldn't have been proud, but no one at Chelsea is complaining about winning the Champions League,,,,

    July 5, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
  12. Steve

    A big problem with FIFA rankings is that it doesn't subtract for losses against weak teams. A 3-4 loss to Spain is treated the same as a 0-5 loss to Guam. Also, teams that play fewer than eight games a year are penalized.

    What a joke that Samoa are still ranked above Solomon Islands.

    nextfifapresident.blogspot.com

    July 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  13. Ras

    LIBOR rate was fixed, so are the FIFA rankings. The world is not as innocent

    July 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  14. Dja

    "Samba-boys"? Aren't we in 2012?

    July 5, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Reply
  15. Felipe

    The best Fifa ranking is the following:
    "World Cup Titles":

    Brazil – 5
    Italy – 4
    Germany – 3
    Argentina – 2
    Uruguay – 2
    Spain – 1
    England – 1
    France – 1

    That's it.

    July 6, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  16. Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Last in the world or first in the world makes little sense. First in Asia-Oceania, Africa, Americas and Europe should be enough. Things could be kept simple.

    July 7, 2012 at 7:09 am | Reply
  17. Kent R. Sailer

    I have been making that argument with my friends for years. The most glaring (recent) example is England being rated higher than Italy, another is after being undefeated for 23 games (having beaten Brazil- England-Germany) France was rated 17th WHAT????? 17th. England has not won ANY REPEAT ANY tournament since 1966, REPEAT 1966. We all understand that the EPL is a HUGE money maker world wide but come on!!!!! Brazil is overated in my opinion but they are certainly not the 11th best in the world, they merit to be in the top 10. Will be very interested to see where Holland is in comparison to Italy, Portugal, Germany, Greece, France, Sweden, Danmark, Russia and at least 3 more. You get my point? The rating are skewed and are indeed laughable.

    July 7, 2012 at 7:32 am | Reply
  18. Javier Garcia

    Felipe,

    If you want to be accurate when making a historic ranking you should subtract those titles won by governing dictators or those which were predetermined before the competition. Italy 34, England 66 and Argentina 78 are just among those WCs which shouldn't count.

    July 8, 2012 at 5:56 am | Reply
  19. Colin Byford

    Uruguay 3rd and England 4th ???
    Ahahaha so funny...

    July 9, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  20. ndowera

    england are highly overated,fifa come on.when was the last time these guys lifted silver ware or bronze for crying out loud if they are so good ,well i beg to differ.look at their league,its foreign players that come out tops,meaning they dont have the raw talent at national level

    July 10, 2012 at 8:39 am | Reply
  21. Sam

    What is so funny about Uruguay being 3rd? If I remember correctly Uruguay reached semi-final of World Cup 2010 and won Copa America 2011. Uruguay losses came to higher ranked teams at that time like Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, Brazil. A team does not necessarily lose a lot of points when they lose to a higher ranked opponents.

    Name a team that should be higher in your mind. I can google that team's record for last four year cycle and analyze why they are not higher.

    Brazil ranking is going to slip as they are not going to play any world cup qualifying matches for 2014. They will lose all the points they have gained during 2010 World Cup qualifying matches.

    I found statistics for following team in one of the site online. I had found a different stats for England and Italy team in earlier posting. I believe those stats might have included other than Senior National team records.

    Uruguay: 16W-9D-7L (27W-14D-10L including Friendlies)
    Brazil: 17W-6D-3L (39W-9D-8L including Friendlies)
    England: 17W-6D-3L (29W-9D-7L including Friendlies)
    Italy: 19W-9D-4L (25W-16D-11L including Friendlies)

    July 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  22. Marcio Teodoro da Silva

    Vai Corinthians !

    July 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  23. Concerned

    Computer rankings are the best FIFA (or anybody else) can do and it beats biased popularity polls used in other sports.
    Let's face it, England did not lose the game to Italy; the game was a draw. The kicks from the mark are not part of a game, they are just a tie breaker. If England would have lost on a coin flip, would you guys consider that to count against them? – Having said that, I agree that England is overrated..
    Including WC wins, as suggested above, is absurd. Do you think England should get credit for a game that was played 46 years ago? You must be kidding! The ratings should reflect current strengths, some averaging is necessary; apparently games played 4 years ago are weighted less than current games.
    It is difficult to come up with ratings if teams don't play the same number of competition and friendly games. Hopefully FIFA will come up with an improved system.

    July 15, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  24. streaky

    Hardly any of you have a clue what you're talking about.

    Firstly you don't get anything for your FIFA ranking, it's a pointless statistical exercise, so lets calm down eh?

    Secondly the system is statistical with hard rules, suggest a better system sure, but lets not talk about England this or England that when they got the points for the results of matches they played.

    There's no style points, you win/lose/draw and points are awarded for that with a multiplier for match importance, end of story.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:46 am | Reply
  25. mojorisin

    So England have just concluded a major tournement in which they reached the quarter final against a major team and lost a draw on penalites to that team. The first two teams are Spain (which won said tournement) and Germany. It would seem that the rankings are actually pretty good. England will fall back to 8th or 9th or 10th over the next couple of years until the WC starts gearing up. Brazil and Agenetina and Mexico will rise as thier own local tourmements are played and the European teams will fall as their most recent matches become older and the Latin american teams matches become fresher within the stats. No team is any better than it's last match.

    July 20, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  26. Jimenez

    Honestly I can understand how the ranking got to where they are today, but that doesn't mean it's correct. England 4th? I do not hate the squad but they to not merit 4 place in the world. Personally i would use computer ranking for any spot above 15th in world rankings and then go off of just interpretation. We all know England would be killed by some teams ranked behind them in the top 15.

    July 22, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  27. Steve

    Streaky – your claim that the FIFA ranking is a pointless statistical exercise is completely wrong.

    1. The rankings are used for seedings for World Cup qualifying
    2. Countries such as England will not usually grant work permits to players whose country has not averaged a top 70 ranking in the last two years.

    So really good players from countries from smaller federations that don't play eight games a year are unfairly penalised.

    nextfifapresident@yahoo.com

    July 27, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  28. Kent R. Sailer

    Simple : 3 points for a win against a team w/higher ranking
    2 points for a win against a team w/lower ranking
    1 point for a draw regardless of ranking
    ----- ------------------------

    – 3 points for a loss to a team w/lower ranking
    – 2 points for a loss to a team w/higher ranking

    This formula is simple, fair and applies to ALL games (friendly or otherwise). It also takes away the ambiguous (played against tougher competition) which is always somebodies opinion. Now you can use the latest FIFA rankings as a starting point. Any future seedings prior to tournaments is based on position held at the time.

    July 31, 2012 at 7:28 am | Reply
  29. rgs2000

    FIFA ranking are complicated so they can just fixed at their will and it has been change from time to time. The point weight are diferent depending on the competition and the contender own ranking plus the place you get at the end of the competition. Friendly matches are considered as outside the main ranking so it weighs less but with the same caracteristic as it were competition. Finally they just a period time to define the ranking. The ranking is a joke and racist itself since competitions in south america and north america at some point weighs less due to their contender ranking in the fifa ranking by the time the competition is held. Just to make my case, take this, how come Uruguay, who did very well in their friendlies plus qualified higher than England in the world cup 2010 and won the COPA AMERICA has almost the same amount of points than England that classified lower in the world cup 2010, lost in quarter finals in the EURO 2012 and even with the qualification matches for the EURO, they has done way lesser than Uruguay.

    Btw, the dumb comment about dictatorship shows your lack of history. Indeed those were bad times but those world cup were held without any controversy from the war since war didnt have anything to do with it plus if that were the case 1934 should have gone to germany and not italy since Mussolini was Hitler sucker. The only real controversy was Uruguay that didnt want to go there because European didnt go to Uruguay the previous world cup in 1930. Next time you want to make a remark like that has some respect for the countries you talk about.

    August 2, 2012 at 4:19 am | Reply
  30. Godwin Iyk

    What is the fuss about ranking, for me is like chasing the shadow instead of the substance. England in particular should not believe that they have arrived especially after with the sorry display the team exhibited in the recent concluded Euro championship. They should rather go down to the root and work how to improve as it continue to marvel me that a country that invented the beautiful game has faild to rise above their average performance having only won in one of the most controversially manner in 1966.
    I believe that when the chips are down the likes of Brazil, Agentina, Spain , Germany and few others will always be there and make all the so call ranking look stupid and meaningless

    August 9, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  31. Kent R. Sailer

    How the hell does England climb to 3rd???? Uruguay goes down to 4th??? & Russia climb 2 spots after crashing out of the group stage in the Euro???? OH! I forgot they are getting the World Cup after Brazil. When England wins a meaningful game they will surely be 1st.
    Curious about some feedback regarding the point system I describe above?? Good or bad just curious to hear other opinions.

    August 15, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
  32. jess

    As an Englishman I can quite honestly say that, we too, find our FIFA ranking, at best, optimistic. At previous tournaments we'd managed to convince ourselves that we had a chance of winning them. However, in the two most recent tournaments it's finally dawned on us that the best we can hope for is that we manage to avoid embarrassing ourselves too much. Although we do have some very good players, it seems that they prefer the sanctuary of their domestic clubs rather than the expectant limelight of the national team. Not all bad thigh, we've now settled for the consolation of knowing that the French team is just as useless a our own.

    August 18, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  33. wongping

    Thank you very much for this article. FIFA in it self is a mockery and I do believe that something seriously should be done to it before the entire world loose confidence in them.

    August 30, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
  34. Yames

    England in 3rd what a joke! Probably closer to 15th place.

    September 13, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Reply

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