How the FIFA World Rankings screw countries like Australia

Australia's Socceroos are ranked 68th in the FIFA World Rankings, which is unfair at best and deliberately biased at worst

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Mar 7 2016, 2:51pm

screengrab from Google

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Australia.

With all the talk these days surrounding FIFA's comically corrupt officials, often overlooked is its equally shambolic ranking system.

The Socceroos, reigning Asian Champions, are 68th - below Haiti, Belarus, and the United Arab Emirates.

Contrast that with Romania who have won just two games in the past year (both against Faroe Islands), but was somehow ranked a stunning 7th in the world toward the end of 2015 (now 16th).

Though we Socceroos fans love being pessimistic, it's actually not our fault.

The Coca-Cola World Ranking (yes, that is its real name) is based on the average ranking points per game a team has won over the last few years. How does this work? Let me explain it for you - and tell you why it is so unfair.

Ranking points are calculated by the following formula: Result x Importance x Opposition Strength x Opposition Confederation

Result

VALUE: 3 for a win, 1 for a draw, zero for a loss.

The problem: Generously rewarding teams for winning makes sense when crowning a champion of a competition, but rankings are supposed to indicate quality rather than simply a tally of victories. Most national teams play a small sample size of just 8-12 games a year, which makes factors like goal difference, duration spent leading and player ratings more indicative of a team's true quality than a handful of results that could have gone either way.

Another is home ground advantage which counted for a 0.38 goal edge during the 2016 European Championships qualifying round, putting geographically isolated teams who often have to travel to play such as Australia at a disadvantage.

Importance

VALUE:

1 for a friendly

2.5 for a World Cup/confederation qualifier

3 for confederation finals

4 for World Cup matches

The problem: The 32 World Cup countries amass points at four times the value of regular internationals. Top seeds are placed into weak groups and coast through them while racking up points with this generous multiplier, while lower-rated teams like Australia usually miss out on the chance as they are seeded into difficult groups such as Group B in Brazil (Netherlands, Chile and Spain). Because losses are worth zero, so was our World Cup campaign (actually less than zero as it brought our average down).

Australia's World Cup campaign of 2014 was worth zero, and therefore, so was this goal

France are automatic qualifiers into the European Championships, so have played in friendlies instead of lucrative qualification matches. As a result, they are now ranked an absurd 24th.

Strength of opposition

VALUE: The better the opposition, the higher the value. This is calculated as 200 minus the opponent's ranking. e.g. Australia is 68th so has a strength value of 132 (200 - 68).

The problem: Most of Australia's games between World Cups are against relatively weak teams which means regardless of performance the ranking points on offer are extremely limited. The Socceroos would have to win all eight of its qualifiers just to break into the top 40, despite having lost only once in the past year and drawing with world champions Germany in March. Meanwhile, teams from Europe and South America have incredible access to ranking points as they play friendlies, qualifiers and continental championships among themselves.

Confederation of Opposition

VALUE:

1 - South America

0.99 - Europe

0.85 - Africa, Asia, Central/North America, Oceania

Not even Robin Williams could make FIFA or Sepp Blatter look good in Australian eyes

Finally, we get to a huge part of how the system is so biased toward traditional footballing powerhouses. Beating or drawing a European or South American team is worth 15% more than a team from any other continent, regardless of that specific team's quality or rank.

For this, let's go back to the example of Australia and Romania.

Australia vs Jordan

Jordan is ranked 82nd with a strength value of 118, but because it's an Asian country its value is actually 100.3.

Romania vs Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands are ranked 94th with a strength value of 106, but because it's a European country its value is actually 104.94.

Even though Faroe Islands are ranked 12 places below Jordan, FIFA considers them a more valuable opponent just because they're from Europe. European teams have performed better than Asian teams over the past three World Cups which is how the Confederation Coefficient is calculated.

If you're wondering what the successes of Germany, Spain and Italy have to do with the Faroe Islands, you're not alone. It makes no sense to account for regional strength, because the formula already accounts for actual opponent strength. Quite simply, this entire part of the formula further separates Europe and South America from the rest of the world by an extra 15%, for seemingly no reason.

How bad is it?

The FIFA Ranking held up surprisingly well predicting results between teams with a clear gulf in quality. On a grander scale, it fails on so many levels to account for team quality that small ranking differences between teams are basically meaningless.

I ran several systems against all 64 matches of the 2014 World Cup and the Elo rating system, originally developed for chess, beat FIFA Rankings, ESPN's Soccer Power Index and FIFA 14 video game team ratings.

Elo ratings calculate true relative strength between teams, and include variables such as goal difference and home advantage. There is no average over a certain period of years, your rating simply goes up or down depending on your performance game-to-game, so you don't suddenly shoot up after beating small teams, or hurt your average because you've lost to heavyweight teams.

As a result of being so specific, it boasts a ranking list that looks way more accurate than FIFA's. For the record, the Elo system places Australia at 39th.

And that's more like it.

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