In December 1992, FIFA introduced their official world ranking system for the very first time. The idea behind it was to have some official measure of a nation’s quality, relative to one another. By tracking this data over time, it can help create a picture of how a particular country has progressed, or regressed, and to what extent. When announced, it was quite a novel idea for a governing body to operate such a ranking system. Perhaps surprisingly, in many other major team sports, such as basketball (2000), ice hockey (2003), rugby union (2003), cricket (2003), countries were not ranked by their performances until several years later.
While certain websites might publish their own rankings of certain nations, the FIFA list acts as the only official and authoritative source. If you ever read “ranked third in the world” then it is more than likely the FIFA rankings that are being referred to. The rankings are typically updated monthly so that they are able to reflect results of recent international affairs, whether competitive matches or friendlies. It is a complete guide that includes all FIFA members, providing they have been active (i.e., played a match) within the previous four years, giving a total that stood at 210 nations at the time of writing.
Now we’ve established what the FIFA ranking system is, let us see how it has progressed over the years before taking an in-depth look into the present-day calculation.
The First Method Was Far Too Simple
While the idea of ranking teams announced in 1992 was uncontroversial, the original methodology most certainly was. During the early years (1993-1998), FIFA used a massively oversimplified system that failed to take into consideration a number of important factors. Rather lazily, all the approach involved was awarding countries one point for each draw and three points for each win. With absolutely no weighting given to the quality of the opposition or anything else, Norway found themselves second in the world on two separate occasions.
Despite the criticism from many corners of the globe, FIFA stuck with this system until December 1998. The following month the revised system appeared, aiming to fix many of the limitations of its predecessor.
Things Start to Get Complicated
The new calculations took into account the number of goals scored and conceded, whether a match was home or away, the importance of the contest and regional strength. This meant countries did not simply receive a fixed number of points based on winning or drawing and in fact it was now even possible to gain points in the event of a defeat.
The calculation introduced in 1998 was as follows:
Points received = (w + g + a – c) s r
w = Points for result (win, draw, loss)
g = Points for number of goals scored
c = Points for number of goals conceded
a = Away team bonus
s = Strength of the match multiplier
r = Regional strength consideration
As well as the new formula, in 2006 we saw the introduction of two new awards, the Team of the Year and the Best Mover of the Year. The Team of the Year was, and still is simply awarded to the team that tops the table during the final calculation of the year. Although being officially crowned as the best team in the world may sound like a big deal, there is little prestige attached to this award. You certainly won’t find teams celebrating number one status as ultimately it is only performances in the big tournaments that matter.
As for the biggest mover, this is based on the difference in points accumulated as opposed the biggest jump in ranking. The latter approach was not favoured because FIFA were aware that it is harder to move up the ranks the higher up you are on the table. While FIFA has continually tracked the biggest mover since 2006, it receives very little in the way of press coverage. We would imagine most people do not even know the rather informal award exists let alone who was crowned biggest mover in any given year. Still, for those that are particularly interested, it does show which country has made some impressive headway in the last 12 months.
Back to the new calculation though and this revamped system was definitely an improvement. It still, however, produced some eyebrow raising results. One example was when the USA rose to number four in the world in April 2006 despite losing to Germany 4-1 a few weeks prior. At the time, it would have been generous to even say that USA were among the top 15 teams in the world. Part of the issue was that the calculation method took into account eight years of results. Using results nearly a decade old for present day rankings naturally skewed things. So, while things had improved since their quite terrible origins, FIFA’s approach was far from universally approved.
It Gets Better, But Not Good Enough
Shortly after USA’s surprise rise to fourth spot, FIFA announced they would, for a second time, adjust the calculation method. This alteration was less drastic than the one before but it did see the evaluation period reduced to four years, half what it was previously. Additionally, FIFA removed goals scored and the home advantage from the calculation.
The new, more simplified calculation was, therefore, as follows:
Points = result points x match status x opposition strength x regional strength.
While something of an improvement, the changes did not help remove all the criticisms that still lingered around the ranking system. One of the main issues was that any host of a major tournament inevitably ended up sliding down the list as they only played low value friendlies (x1 multiplier) rather than higher value qualifiers (x 2.5 multiplier).
Brazil, for instance, dropped to 22nd in the world a year before hosting the 2014 World Cup. Russia also hit an all-time low themselves ahead of the 2018 World Cup for which they were the home nation. In their case, although they were far from one of the best teams in the world, 70th spot behind the likes of Guinea, Panama and Cape Verde was obviously not a remotely fair reflection of their ability.
Criticisms of the system employed between 2006 and 2018 were not just limited to the fall of tournaments host though. Occasionally they would simply produce a result which just didn’t seem right. Israel for instance, failed to qualify for Euro 2008 but they ended up 15th in the rankings, leading to the Jerusalem Post to describe the system as ‘quirky’. Many people also questioned how Belgium could end up as number one in 2015 given they didn’t qualify for Euro 2012 and lost in the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup.
Football Says Hello To Elo
In 2017, FIFA announced their intentions to review the present ranking system and ultimately they decided yet more improvements were required. Their latest idea was inspired by the Elo rating system, which has been used to determine the ranks of chess players, but also in sports such as baseball, American football and basketball. One of the main premises of an Elo-modelled system is that a country’s score will increase or decrease, on a game-by-game basis, depending or not if they win or lose.
This approach removed one of the major flaws of the previous system in which winning friendlies could actually see your rank drop. Because friendlies were considered so low value, the games themselves, even with the win multiplier, were enough to lower a team’s overall average. You therefore ended up with the silly situations in which teams were better off not playing matches, meaning the system was very open to manipulation, something teams might do in order to gain preferential seeding.
This new Elo-inspired model removed this issue by using the following equation:
P = Pbefore + I * (W – We)
P simply stands for points.
I is the importance of the match, ranging from a friendly outside the standard calendar (05) to a FIFA World Cup QF match or later (60).
W is the result of the match (1 for a win, 0.5 for a draw, 0 for a loss)
We is the expected result of a match.
‘We’ itself uses a calculation of:
We = 1 / (10(-dr/600) + 1)
In this calculation dr is the difference in ratings of the two teams, prior to their clash.
Let us say the recently established country of Anglostan has a rank of 900 and they are up against a formidable Brazil who have a world-topping score of 1800 in a continental cup qualifier.
For Anglostan the formula is: P = 900 + 25 * (1- (1 / 10(-(900-1800)/600) + 1))
If Anglostan wins, their score would jump from 900 to 924, an increase of 24. Brazil’s score would decrease by the same amount.
Under this new system, competitions are still weighted but winning a friendly could only see your score increase, even if only a small amount. There is therefore no negative impact gained from winning, under any circumstances.
Interestingly, this new system also made it impossible to lose points if you enter the knockout rounds of final competitions. The idea behind this is that a team that has done well enough to reach this point should not end up eventually worse off due to their achievement. The slight problem with this however is that it will inevitably lead to some points inflation. For friendlies and qualifiers, the ranking is a zero-sum game but as it is only possible to increase your total in knockout matches, the overall total will gradually go up over time for nations that continually reach this phase. Although the rate of inflation will not be huge, it does mean that current data is not directly comparable with historic data.
Moving from one significantly different system to another posed its challenges but FIFA managed to sort this part out quite seamlessly. Rather than causing chaos by making everyone start at the same arbitrary rank, they decided that they would use the previous ranking tables when awarding the scores under the new system. The points for the seeding were calculated as follows:
Pseeding = 1600 – (R – 1) * 4
This meant that the top-rated team at the time, Germany, would have a rating of 1600 while the team ranked 200 would have a score of 804. You will note that in the August 2018 rankings, Germany’s actual rank slipped to 1561, this is because they lost two of their World Cup group stage games after the initial calculations were made. In the end, it was actually France who topped the scoring, going from 1576 to 1726 thanks to their World Cup triumph.
Although most would argue this latest revamp of the system is a step in the right direction, and rightly so, it still has some small limitations. In May 2021, the official rankings had San Marino at rock bottom, meaning they are officially the worst nation on the planet. While they are definitely a poor side, as most Europeans can attest, they are a long way from the worst around. Anguilla, who sat a place above, lost 15-0 to Trinidad and Tobago and 10-0 to Guatemala in 2019. Say what you wish about San Marino but they would never lose to such poor teams by such an emphatic scoreline.
In FIFA’s defence though, virtually any system is going to struggle to factor this in. San Marino and other minnows such as Liechtenstein play in probably the competitive region in world football, Europe. This means that many of their games are played against far stronger sides than nations from the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) or the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC).
Even if a modified system could adequately take this into account, it would inevitably produce a new problem the current system does not have. Having a universally agreed upon and loved-by-all ranking system is an impossible task as far as we are concerned. The current system however is FIFA’s best effort by far and thus, one unlikely to undergo much in the way of major changes for a while. There may be minor tweaks, as we saw in April 2021 when calculations switched from the nearest integer (whole number) to two decimal points, but little more should be expected.
What Is The Point Of FIFA World Rankings?
We have discussed the history of the FIFA world rankings and the current day calculation but you might be wondering what is the point of even having them? Does it provide anything more than mild bragging rights and a way of giving journalists another means of referring to a specific country? We can attest that after writing Frances or Les Bleus several times, it is nice to have the option of saying ‘the nation ranked second in the world’! But surely there is more to it than this?
There is and in fact the rankings are actually of real importance hence why they can be so controversial. Primarily, they are used to determine the seedings for World Cup qualifiers and finals draws. A better rank can provide you with an easier route into the World Cup and an easier time once you are there.
It is therefore particularly important to countries that are close to the border of two seeding pots. Having only one better seeded team in the group is considerably less challenging than having two, in most circumstances. Although you can find situations where a pot three team is largely perceived better than a pot two team, these are exception to the rule. In short, by being as high up FIFA’s rankings as possible, a nation generally has the best chance of gaining an easier group or draw and thus going further in the World Cup.