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How FIFA calculates its standings for international teams

The FIFA football ranking has been a contentious issue, to say the least, ever since its inception in 1992. Despite two major updates, first in 1999 and then in 2006, it has continued to receive sharp criticism from various people who consider the FIFA standings to be terribly flawed.

There have been quite a few baffling cases to support their viewpoint – none more so than Wales’ recent rise to the 9th spot ahead of the likes of Spain, Italy and France.

As per FIFA, the basic logic behind the calculations is simple: “Any team that does well in world football wins points which enable it to climb the world ranking.” Sounds straightforward, right? Well, the problem is that the mathematics involved is anything but simple; moreover, the sport’s governing body chose to ignore some basic aspects which should have been accounted for in the calculations.

FIFA itself is mired in controversies these days and they could well do without a debate on the ranking system. So how does FIFA come up with the standings that are updated every month? Here we take a detailed look at the calculations involved and try to decipher the perceived flaws in them.

Points calculation

FIFA arrives at team rankings based on the average points that a team accumulates over a four-year period. The matches within the previous 12 months are given 100% weight (provided the team plays a minimum of five matches) while the value of matches before that period depreciate on a yearly basis.

More on that later, but first let’s take a look at how a team earns points from a single match.

As per the changes implemented in the 2006 rankings update, points are awarded on the basis of four factors – result, match importance, the strength of the opposition and strength of the confederation. FIFA has devised the following formula to calculate the points a team earns from a match.

Points = M x I x T x C

Match result (M)

Win – 3 points, Draw – 1 point, Loss – 0 points

If the match is decided at the end of a penalty shootout, then the points awarded are: Win – 2 points, Loss – 1 point

Importance of match (I)

Friendly match – 1, World Cup qualifier or confederation-level qualifier – 2.5, Confederation-level competition or Confederations Cup – 3, FIFA World Cup final competition – 4

Opposition strength (T)

As a standard, the formula for calculating points based on this criteria is: 200 minus the ranking position of the opponents (200 is assigned to the top-ranked team, 199 to the 2nd placed team and so on. All teams ranked below 150 have a minimum value of 50 points).

Strength of the confederation (C)

The strength of the confederation is calculated on the basis of the number of victories by a particular confederation over another in the last three FIFA World Cups.

Confederation No of inter-confederation matches / matches won

2006

World Cup

2010

World Cup

2014

World Cup

Total

(Games / Wins)

Average

(Wins / Games)

Weight
UEFA 34 / 26 34 / 20 41 / 24.5 109 / 71.5 0.65 0.99
CONMEBOL 17 / 10.5 24 / 16 24 / 17 65 / 43.5 0.66 1.00
CONCACAF 13 / 2.5 11 / 4 16 / 7.5 40 / 14 0,34 0.85
AFC 14 / 3.5 14 / 5 12 / 1.5 40 / 10 0.24 0.85
CAF 16 / 4.5 20 / 6.5 17 / 4.5 53 / 15.5 0.29 0.85
OFC 0 / 0 3 / 1.5 0 / 0 3 / 1.5 0.17 0.85

The weight of CONCACAF/AFC/CAF/OFC have been arrived at after a complicated calculation by FIFA in an effort to ensure that matches against the relatively weaker confederations do not entail a huge disadvantage in the points earned.

Average points calculation over the four-year period

Points calculation for the past 12 months

If a team plays 10 matches in a 12-month period and gets a total of 4500 points based on its results in those matches, the average points will be 4500/10 = 450 points. Since the team has played more than five matches, the 450 points are given 100% weight.

If the team plays less than five matches, the points are calculated as follows:

No. of matches Total points
4 0.8 * Points average
3 0.6 * Points average
2 0.4 * Points average
1 0.2 * Points average

Points calculation for matches older than 12 months and less than 48 months

From 2006, results of matches over the last four years are taken into account before arriving at the final rankings.

Average points Weight
Matches more than 12 months old but less than 24 months 50%
Matches more than 24 months old but less than 36 months 30%
Matches more than 36 months old but less than 48 months 20%
Matches more than 48 months old Not taken into account

An analysis of the flaws with the ranking system

Let’s make the scoring system clear with an example and also shed some light on the flaws associated with it. Take the 2014 FIFA World Cup semi-final match which ended in favour of eventual champions Germany 7-1 against hosts Brazil.

Here's how Germany got their points from the match.

Germany Brazil
Result 7 1
Status of match FIFA World Cup semi-final
Ranking position 2 3
Strength of confederation 1 1
Points for match result (M) 3 0
Points for match importance (I) 4 0
Opposition strength (T) 197 198
Strength of confederation (C) 1
Total points earned (P) = M*I*T*C 3*4*197*1 = 2364 0

Flaws in the system

1. Whether the matches are at home or away not taken into consideration

Brazil had the whole country screaming for their team when they took the field against Germany and yet got thrashed. This might not have been technically a home-away fixture, but in a game like football where home support means a lot, to ignore it is criminal.

The case of Bolivia’s home matches also comes to mind in this context. They play their home matches, including World Cup qualifiers, at Estadio Hernando Siles, which is at an altitude of 3637m above sea level; it is one of the highest football stadiums in the world. That has helped them gain an unfair advantage over their opponents, who often struggle to adapt to the high altitude. Argentina were on the receiving end of a 6-1 thrashing by Bolivia playing at home, but as per FIFA rankings system ‘a win is a win’.

2. Goal differential not taken into account

Germany won by a huge margin of 7-1, but they would have collected the same number of FIFA ranking points had they won 1-0. That’s because the margin of victory is not taken into consideration while calculating the points. Clean sheets are of no value either.

3. Match stakes

The match in consideration was the World Cup semi-final, with a spot in the final of football’s biggest competition at stake. FIFA has taken into consideration the match importance factor with regards to friendlies, qualifiers or competition matches, but the glitch here is that whether it is a group stage match or the World Cup final itself, the points remain the same.

4. Zero points for loss

Brazil vs Germany might not have been a close contest by any means, but no matter how well a team played a match in a losing battle, they are awarded zero points, unless it’s in a penalty shootout where the losing team gets 1 point. A close fight needs to be appreciated and should bear a reflection in the rankings.

5. Brazil’s drop down the FIFA rankings

Brazil, by virtue of being hosts of the 2014 World Cup, gained automatic qualification to the quadrennial event. That meant they didn't take part in any qualifiers, while their South American counterparts battled each other for a spot in the finals.

The five-time world champions did not play a competitive fixture from the 2011 Copa America, where they were eliminated in the quarter-final, up until the 2013 Confederations Cup. . Apart from that they played just friendlies in the lead-up to the tournament, which resulted in them dropping to a record-low world ranking of 22.

6. The issue of friendlies

The value attached to friendlies is understandably low, but the question arises whether they need to be even considered at all. In the midst of the club season, friendlies often turn out to be meaningless affairs, with managers mostly using the opportunity to try out some fringe players and experiment with their formations.

The results hardly matter even to the victorious fans, so there needs to be a reassessment of the points awarded to them.

7. ‘The confederation strength’

FIFA themselves have been looking at expanding the sport to continents like Asia and Africa, which are perceived as relative minnows compared to Europe and South America. But by introducing ‘the strength of confederation’ factor in deciding points, they are contradicting themselves and defeating the purpose.

Also, the weakest team in a continent and the strongest one are considered at the same level as per this factor. It would be better to just do away with this; the strength of the opposition is anyways taken into account, and that should be it.

8. Tournaments not endorsed by FIFA are not taken into consideration

Only FIFA-endorsed tournaments are taken into consideration for the rankings. This issue came into the limelight when Thai FA boss Worawi Makudi, who himself is an FIFA executive committee member, called for a revamp of the ranking system.

"I don't quite understand the calculating method Fifa used for the world rankings. For example, an event like the AFC Challenge Cup has more (ranking) points than the Suzuki Cup [Asean Championship] even though better teams compete in the latter tournament,” Worawi said, as reported by The Nation."Or you could just consider which side would win a game between Thailand and the Philippines. For me, we would win, definitely, yet the Filipinos sit above us in the rankings. I asked FIFA to review the calculation method," he added.

9. The flaw in the points distribution for matches won after a penalty shootout in two-legged play-offs

The match which stirred the debate was the two-legged play-off between Jordan and Kyrgyzstan in late 2007. Jordan lost 2-0 in Kyrgyzstan on October 18th but won 2-0 at home in the second leg 10 days later. With the match tied on the home and away goals rule, the result was decided in a penalty shootout in which Jordan prevailed 6-5.

As per FIFA, they received 284.75 points from the win. The breakdown for the points (P=M*I*T*C) is as follows:-

M = 2 (as it was a penalty shootout win), I = 2.5 (World Cup qualifier), T = 67 (Kyrgyzstan were ranked 133rd at that time), C = 0.85 (Both AFC teams)

Jordan progressed in the qualifiers thanks to the penalty shoot-out win but had they won the match 1-0 and lost out in the two-legged affair, they would have earned more ranking points. So the issue arises as to how the ranking system can completely disregard a nation's progress in a World Cup qualifier.

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