In the 2014 Brazil World Cup , as many before it, the first pot consisted of the host country and the other top 7 teams in the world by FIFA ranking. Pots 2 thru 4 were then formed by region trying to explicitly accomplish geographic diversification from the onset, with small exceptions such as the lowest team in Europe getting sent to the African bucket in 2014, oddly enough being France. This format oftentimes led to lopsided groups, albeit geographically diverse, and a group or two that really stood out as very tough. This often, and by often I mean like every time, led to a group being dubbed, “The Group of Death.” The USA had the task of being in the group of death in 2014 with the historical American kryptonite in Ghana, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and eventual champions Germany.
What is FIFA’s job after all? They strive for their product to be competitive and try to put on entertaining matchups. Their job is to produce compelling matchups and one would think they want, and I would agree with, great teams playing at the very end in FIFA competitions. Would they want 3 teams in the world top 15 to be playing each other in the group stage of the World Cup? While it would make for compelling matchups early on, and while maybe satisfying geographic diversification, it would not allow all three great teams to get out of the group stage. That would have certainly been a Group of Death. They must have faith that the FIFA rankings, albeit being slightly biased towards their own rankings, would be a good indicator of how the games will go. In the new format, seen in the most recent version in Russia, you’d never see three top 15 ranked teams in the same group. This would, on a cursory level, appear to be fairer and smooth the playing field from group to group. I could get behind this. The goal was to improve the balance of the groups and I believe it accomplished that.
How are the FIFA rankings currently determined? Simply put it’s a point system. Teams acquire points from results. FIFA ranks the points of countries from greatest to least and then you get the FIFA rankings. Points can be calculated from the equation, P=M*I*T*C, where:
Going into the 2018 World Cup the M, I, T, and C were defined as :
The points from the last four years are then weighted to produce what is commonly referred to as a weighted moving average. Those weights follow the table below:
As a quick example let’s say a country has:
200 points this year
150 points in the prior year
100 for the year three years ago
250 for the year four years ago
1*200 + .5*150 + .3*100 + .2*250 = 355 points
Let’s swap the prior year’s points with the points from four years ago in the prior example to see how the resulting points change. Below, one can see that more recent success is rewarded in this framework. Success four years ago, while taken into consideration, is not as heavily rewarded as more recent success.
1*200 + .5*250 +.3*100 + .2*150 = 385 points
Prior to 06 the FIFA rankings were based off an average of the last 8 years of games with different weightings for the current scheme, different types of matches, the opponent’s ranking, which conference the opponent came from, and how far back in time the game was played. For example, a win against Vanuatu in a friendly match was not worth the same points as beating Spain in the World Cup. After the Germany 06 World Cup this was slightly altered by only looking at the last 4 years of games, thus only including one World Cup cycle instead of two World Cup cycles. A FIFA ranking of 17 in 2003 was fundamentally different than looking at a FIFA ranking of 17 in 2018.
In the FIFA ranking system teams get points for friendlies, albeit a quarter of the points that would be received compared to a World Cup game ( 1 in a friendly vs 4 in a world cup) but points nonetheless. As there are points on the line and the points determine the seeding for qualifying campaigns teams are incentivized to meticulously schedule somewhat easier opponents in hopes of getting better seeding. Some countries really try to challenge themselves against better opposition during friendlies but certain teams really try to navigate the system to their advantage.
Like I mentioned before beating opponents in different conferences also has different weightings. Beating a European or South American team is better for getting points than beating a team in Asia all else being equal (seen in the variable C in the variable table above). And since meaningful intercontinental play between World Cups is rare it doesn’t give much chance for teams in the “weaker” conferences to advance. Since UEFA and CONMEBOL have greater weights we often see clumps of European and South American teams in the top 10-20. They have better weightings because those conferences have tended to perform better in World Cups. If the 2018 semi-finals happened to be composed of Mexico, Iran, Egypt, and Senegal it’d be a safe bet that those conference weightings would change.
While it’s been discussed, and appears quite likely, to change the FIFA ranking system and while I do agree with a lot of the changes I, quite selfishly, don’t want them to as this means me having to acquire even more data going forward as I would have to come up with a method to convert these “old” FIFA rankings into the corresponding new method ranking. I’ll save that challenge for when it’s confirmed. The next iteration will most likely involve some new ranking and hopefully it doesn’t penalize teams for taking friendlies against better opponents.
If you like this type of material please sign up with your email and I’ll send you a free pdf of the Bet is Round.