There is no value whatsoever in the FIFA men’s world rankings.
This is the sort of thing people always say, and maybe we believe it in the abstract way we believe in fourteenth-century Mesoamerican pottery. But mostly we don’t act like it’s true. FIFA released a new batch of rankings yesterday and sure enough a million news sources pumped out a million articles and a billion fans said “wow, Canada’s ranked behind St. Vincent and the Grenadines now?” In practice, to fans and media, FIFA’s rankings aren’t dismissed as easily as a Raelian press release.
So let me explain why, if I see you expressing genuine interest in the FIFA men’s world rankings again, I am going to smack you upside the head*.
The formula for allocating men’s ranking points is very simple and FIFA spells it out clearly. For our purposes, the two most important factors are a) teams gaining a base three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss, and b) the large multipliers depending on the importance of the game. At the lowest end of the scale, a friendly is worth no bonus, while a FIFA World Cup match sees the total number of points earned multiplied by four.
You already see two excruciating flaws. First, the system rewards only results, not performance. If you are, say, Costa Rica, and went to the World Cup and got some points even after being were outshot a billion to nothing, you will get a load of points and the team you beat will get none. (Another good example: teams get two points for winning in a penalty shootout, even though a match that went to the shootout is a draw by definition.) This is not a reflection of how good your team was, it is a reflection of how lucky it was.
Meanwhile, an extremely credible defeat, no matter what the circumstances are, is worth nothing. Even Colombian commentators seemed to agree that Canada’s 1-0 loss to Colombia boosted their opinion of the Canadian men’s national team. As far as the FIFA rankings are concerned we might as well have lost 8-1.
Second, the multiplier for playing in a competitive match means that individual games can gain disproportionate weight in your ranking, while teams are rewarded simply because their confederation schedules more competitions for them. This is hardly a system for determining your place in the soccer world, is it? And how much respect do you really deserve for a well-timed hot streak in a Confederations Cup? According to FIFA, “loads and loads and loads.”
The resulting numbers for all matches in the past four years are added up, with older games being reduced in weight, and that’s your ranking. So suppose you’re Canada. You play competitive games every two years: the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup and the quadrennial World Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile you’re being compared to countries like Cuba, who can play both of those events plus the biennial Caribbean Cup. Or El Salvador, playing in the also-biennial Copa Centroamericana. This means that your rivals have many more chances to rack up the big ranking points, a problem redoubled if you play friendlies against strong teams like Colombia or Australia from which even a terrific performance is unlikely to get you a single point. And those rivals have the points they earned whooping on Dutch colonies showing up on their records for four years. And if you’re unlucky enough to be drawn into a Gold Cup group with a team like Guadeloupe or Martinique, who are members of CONCACAF but not FIFA, you don’t earn any points: Canada’s last win in the Gold Cup was in 2011 against Guadeloupe, and the Canadian ranking didn’t benefit†.
Since we’re all Canadians, let’s look at it from a purely CONCACAF perspective. Take the recent qualifying for the Caribbean Cup. This is some of the weakest soccer on the regular men’s international calendar: amateur soccer players from countries with the population of Oshawa. But because it is an official CONCACAF event, it receives a points multiplier of 2.5. And three points for a win against Montserrat means a lot more than no points for a loss to Colombia. As a result, since qualifying kicked off in May the dregs of the Caribbean shoot up the charts in a manner wholly unrelated to their ability. Teams like Canada don’t get to benefit from these points, since we aren’t eligible to play in the tournaments. So the CONCACAF rankings get jokey.
Here is a table with the highest point-earning game for some of the CONCACAF teams ranked ahead of Canada this month (remember: Canada earned zero points for taking Colombia to the brink.)
|Costa Rica||3||South Korea||1||Friendly||349.35|
|Trinidad and Tobago||1||Antigua and Barbuda||0||Caribbean Cup qual.||765.00|
|Antigua and Barbuda||2||Saint Lucia||1||Caribbean Cup qual.||490.88|
|Dominican Republic||3||Saint Lucia||2||Caribbean Cup qual.||490.88|
|Haiti||4||Barbados||2||Caribbean Cup qual.||318.75|
|St. Vincent and the Grenadines||1||Curaçao||0||Caribbean Cup qual.||331.50|
|St. Kitts and Nevis||1||Haiti||1||Caribbean Cup qual.||172.13|
That Costa Rica result at the top of the page is genuinely impressive. Winning 3-1 against South Korea in Seoul is no mean feat. But in FIFA terms it’s not half as good as beating Antigua and Barbuda 1-0 at home in a Caribbean Cup qualifier, as Trinidad and Tobago did. Antigua and Barbuda has four players on professional first teams; their captain, Quenton Griffiths, plays with USL Pro’s Charleston Battery. That Costa Rican win is a bit better than St. Vincent and the Grenadines beating Curaçao 1-0. Curaçao, population 152,000, is not a sovereign state. And los Ticos only wish they could beat Saint Lucia, as two countries ranked above us did: a stronger version of that Saint Lucia team played Canada twice in 2012 and was metro league quality.
Again, these are just games from the last month. If we went back further we’d see plenty more ridiculousness. The Caribbean Cup proper, which starts in November, is going to see more big gains for shitty countries: watch for Cuba, already wrongly ranked ahead of Canada, to profit from beating on Curaçao. The Caribbean Cup is a biennial tournament, so dinky little minnows enjoy the spoils of smacking each other around twice a World Cup cycle while Canada hopes for the occasional draw against Panama to keep us looking respectable. Then when Canada falls down the rankings, as we are mathematically almost certain to do, the press starts wringing its hands.
There is one reason to ever pay attention to the FIFA men’s world rankings: it’s used to determine seedings for World Cup qualifying. Yet even that’s marginal. Face it, if Canada has any aspirations to play in Russia it shouldn’t matter whether we’re drawn against Panama or Guatemala. Last time out Canada, though sheer luck, got drawn into two of the weakest groups we could have hoped for, and we know what happened. Until the hex the CONCACAF qualifying format is actually very generous for a confederation that has only two frightening teams plus whereever Costa Rica ranks in its quest to be either the most surprising or most disappointing team in world soccer depending on the phases of the moon.
If you want a decent way to rank the world’s soccer nations, try the World Football Elo Ratings. It’s not a perfect system but it’s a lot better than FIFA’s chicanery, and if you check their latest you’ll see Canada is ranked 88th in the world and tenth in CONCACAF. This is a little low in my books but not very, and it’s a damned sight better than anything FIFA has to offer. So shut up about their unusable rankings. Thank you.