Why Belgium becoming number one proves the FIFA rankings are a farce

Belgium top fifa rankings number 1
Belgium players celebrate after beating Israel in the final Euro 2016 qualifier in Brussels

When FIFA release the updated rankings in November, fans will be surprised to see Belgium taking the top spot. The new rank was confirmed after the Red Devils beat Israel 3-1 in the final Euro 2016 qualifier in Brussels on Tuesday night.

After 10 games, Belgium topped Group B with 23 points, ahead of Wales who finished second with 21. Both teams have directly qualified for Euro 2016 while third-placed Bosnia and Herzegovina (17 points) will advance to the playoffs.

In the latest FIFA rankings released in October, Belgium had fallen down one spot to third while Germany moved up to second behind Argentina. But after Germany lost 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland and Ecuador claimed a shocking 2-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires, Belgium will now make history now that the international break has come to an end.

FIFA Rankings at the beginning of October 2015
Rank Team Total Points +/-
1 Argentina 1419 -
2 Germany 1401 +1
3 Belgium 1387 -1
4 Portugal 1235 +2
5 Colombia 1224 -1
6 Spain 1223 +5
7 Brazil 1204 -2
8 Wales 1195 +1
9 Chile 1177 -1
10 England 1161 -

Belgium had also beaten Andorra 4-1 away to remain unbeaten in their last four games in the qualifiers. The only loss they suffered was against Wales when Gareth Bale’s goal blew the roof off Cardiff City Stadium. They also drew against Wales in Brussels and against Bosnia and Herzegovina in Zenica.

Marc Wilmots’s side will top the rankings with 1440 points in November. Germany's loss will see them drop to 1388 points and third place while Argentina will finish second after the drew 0-0 with Paraguay on Tuesday night. But even if they had won that game, they would have only scored a maximum of 1429 points.

Where do Belgium stand compared to other toppers?

Belgium will become the eighth different team to top the rankings since its introduction in 1992. They join some esteemed company – Germany, Brazil, Italy, France, Argentina, Spain and Netherlands. All these nations have swapped positions at the top time and again over the years.

Since the rankings were introduced, Brazil, France, Italy, Spain and Germany have won the World Cup. Argentina and Netherlands have at least reached the final while the Albiceleste have reached the Copa America final thrice in the last four editions. Netherlands have won one Euro and reached the semi-finals a few times too.

And what about Belgium? The 2014 World Cup was their first appearance in 12 years. And their last appearance at the Euro was in 2000 – because they were the co-hosts.

Belgium Euro 2000
Belgium last played in the Euros in 2000 – when they hosted the tournament

There are no arguments against the fact that Belgium deserved to top the group and qualify for another major tournament which takes place in France next year. With world class players such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne in the squad (5 goals each), captained by Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, there was no doubt they would qualify after impressing one and all at the 2014 FIFA World Cup where a solitary Gonzalo Higuain goal saw their dream run end in the quarter-finals.

Six years ago, Belgium were ranked 66. So how is it that a team that failed to qualify for five major international tournaments after the 2002 World Cup, one that did not take part in one until the grand event in Brazil last year, reach the top of the world rankings? The answer lies in the comical system that is the FIFA rankings itself.

How the FIFA rankings work

FIFA have explained the full procedure to arrive at the points which decide the rankings, In a nutshell, for each match, points are given for the match result (M), the importance of the game (I), the relative strength of the opponent (T) and the strength of the confederation (C).

P = M x I x T x C

It would be easier to explain with an example. Suppose England (currently ranked 10th) beat Argentina (currently ranked 1) by a 3-0 scoreline in a World Cup match, this is how the points would be calculated.

Match result: A victory gives you 3 points (1 for a draw, 0 for a loss). So M = 3

Importance: A FIFA World Cup game has the maximum points (4 points) followed by confederation (UEFA/CONMEBOL etc – 3 points), qualifiers (2.5 points) and friendlies (1.0). So in this case, I = 4

Strength of opponent: This is a default formula where the opponent’s rank is subtracted from 200. So since England played Argentina who are ranked 1. Therefore, the higher the rank of the opponent you beat, the more points you get. Therefore, T = 200-1 = 199 (Note: If a team is ranked below 150, a minimum of 50 points are awarded).

Confederation: Since England and Argentina are from different confederations (UEFA and CONMEBOL respectively), the mean value of the two confederations is taken. Each confederation’s strength is calculated based on the number of wins by the respective confederation on in the last three World Cups.

The current values are: CONMEBOL – 1.00, UEFA – 0.99 and AFC/CAF/OFC/CONCACAF – 0.85

So in this case, the value of C = (1+0.99)/2 = 0.995

Therefore, England would get 3 x 4 x 199 x 0.995 = 2376 points for a 3-0 win against Argentina in a World Cup game.

But that is not where it ends. The average of points over a 4-year period are considered. This is calculated based on average of points in the last 12 months and the matches older than 12 months. The second average will always depreciate over the course of every 12 months. The last 12 months are given the most weightage.

Why the FIFA rankings are a farce

While the points system is clearly well thought out to take into account factors such as opponent’s strengths to the importance of the game, there are other factors that bring the entire system into question. Although it is fair to give weightage to results over the past 12 months, it is the manner in which these results are taken into account which should be questioned.

To understand that, let’s compare the performances of the top three teams since the 2014 World Cup. Germany were crowned the world champions in Brazil last year and since then they have lost to Argentina, USA (both friendly matches), Poland and Republic of Ireland (both Euro qualifiers).

Argentina Mexico
Argentina played a number of tougher opponents like Mexico in the past year

Argentina reached the World Cup final and the Copa America final. They lost both matches after a good run in both tournaments with Lionel Messi’s reactions etched in our memories for a long time to come. But the Copa loss to Chile was in a penalty shootout. And they also lost to Brazil and Portugal (both friendly matches) and Ecuador (World Cup qualifier).

In contrast, the only major opponent Belgium faced since the World Cup was France, in a friendly game they won 4-3. Does thrashing the likes of minnows such as Cyprus and Andorra 5-0 and 6-0 in Euro qualifiers mean they were better than Argentina who drew or lost friendly matches against powerhouses such as Mexico, Portugal and Brazil?

Although one can point at Argentina’s 6-1 thrashing of Paraguay in the Copa America and 7-0 rout of Bolivia in a friendly, both these opponents are ranked 61 and 67 respectively. Cyprus are not even in the top 100 countries in the FIFA rankings. Andorra is not even in the top 200 out of 208 member nations!

So while the big teams battled it out against each other on a tightrope, winning and losing points on a regular basis, Belgium had a six-lane highway straight to the top.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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