To determine the eight seeded teams at the 2014 World Cup, FIFA used the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
This points-based ranking system is oversimplified at best, and horribly flawed at worst. Yet it’s an incredibly important factor in which teams will make it out of the group stage in Brazil.
The 32 teams at the World Cup are divided into eight groups. To keep the best teams from landing in the same group and eliminating each other right off the bat, FIFA puts the top seven teams in the world (plus the host nation) in separate groups.
And to determine the top seven teams in the world, FIFA uses its own rankings.
The formula FIFA uses is not an accurate representation of which are the best teams in the world. It ignores things like goal differential, home field advantage, and stakes — resulting in a crude list that doesn’t give you a full picture of the international soccer landscape.
We’ll get deeper into why it’s so bad later on. But for now, let’s break down the formula.
Teams get points for each international match based on four factors, and the final ranking consists of all a team’s points over a four-year window. This is the formula:
Points = M (points for match result) * I (importance of match) * T (strength of opponent) * C (strength of confederation)
To explain each of those four factors a little further:
- M (points for match result): Teams get 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, 0 points for a loss.
- I (importance of match): This multiplier is fixed based on perceived importance of each competition, as follows:
- Friendly game: 1.0
- World Cup qualifier: 2.5
- Confederation’s Cup or confederation-level competition (like the Euros): 3.0
- World Cup game: 4.0
- T (strength of opponent): T=200 – (ranking of opponent). So if you play, 2nd-ranked Germany, T=198. And if you play 80th-ranked Haiti, T=120.
- C (strength of confederation): This multiplier is fixed by the perceived strength of each continent. The mean between the two numbers is used when teams from different continents play each other:
- Europe/South America: 1.0
- North/Central America: 0.88
- Asia/Africa: 0.86
- Oceania: 0.85
Multiply those four numbers together, and you get your FIFA ranking points for each game. Add up all of a team’s points over a four-year window (with more recent games weighted more heavily), and you get its total FIFA ranking points.
The ranking takes the last four years of games into account, as follows:
- Four years ago: 20% weight
- Three years ago: 30% weight
- Two years ago: 50% weight
- Current year: 100% weight
So that’s the entire formula.
The issues here are many.
1. It doesn’t take into account goal differential. This is probably the biggest flaw. As Nate Silver wrote in his explanation for Soccer Power Index (his own ranking of teams), margin of victory is a more accurate predictor of team performance that simple wins and losses.
Since international soccer games are so infrequent, you have a small sample of data to use in the first place. By ignoring goal differential, FIFA is ignoring a massive set of data that could be used to differentiate teams from one another.
Not all wins, losses, and draws are created equal. England losing to Spain 1-0 is, in many ways, a good result. But the FIFA rankings treat it the same as a 5-0 beating.
2. It doesn’t take into account home-field advantage. Silver says home field advantage in international soccer is worth 0.57 goals per game. That’s an insanely high figure. The United States drawing Mexico 0-0 on the road (where they have only won once ever) is much, much more impressive than the United States drawing Mexico 1-1 at home.
FIFA treats all results exactly the same in a sport where we know home field advantage matters.
3. YOU GET ZERO POINTS FOR A LOSS NO MATTER WHAT. This is silly When teams play so few games, a ranking that treats every loss the same is going to be misleading. Argentina losing 1-0 to Bolivia at home is not that same as Argentina losing 1-0 to Brazil on the road.
4. The “strength of confederation” metric is biased. Why not just use strength of team? The FIFA rankings assume that teams in Europe are inherently better than teams in Africa. There’s no reason to give a team a bump in points for playing the worst team in Europe as opposed to the worst team in Africa. Just use team strength.
5. It doesn’t take into account whether or a not a team plays its “A” team. FIFA tries to take relative team strength into account with it’s “I (importance of match)” metric. But that number assumes team strength based on the specific competition — it assumes teams will always put out a weaker squad in less-important competitions and always put out a stronger squad in more-important competitions.
But that’s not the case.
For instance, Italy officially qualified for the 2014 World Cup back in September with two qualifying games left. Those last two qualifying games were completely meaningless, and Italy fielded a more experimental team in two draws against Denmark and Armenia.
The FIFA ranking treats each team the same no matter which players are actually playing, or what the stakes are in that specific game.
FIFA has a really tough job here. As we said before, international teams sometimes only play a couple of meaningful games a year (and sometimes none at all). So determining a ranking of every team in the world with such a limited amount of information is tough.
But FIFA is ignoring important data that could make its ranking more accurate.
Here are the eight teams who were seeded at the World Cup, which was based on the October 2013 FIFA World Ranking:
- Spain (ranked 1st)
- Germany (ranked 2nd)
- Argentina (ranked 3rd)
- Colombia (ranked 4th)
- Belgium (ranked 5th)
- Switzerland (ranked 7th)
- Uruguay (Ranked 6th)
- Brazil (ranked 11th, but get an automatic seed as the host nation)
According to SPI — Nate Silver’s super-complex ranking that uses things like goal differential and home field advantage, as well as player performance on the club level — these were the actual top-8 teams in the world at the time the top-eight World Cup seeds were determined:
Chile and France were replaced by Switzerland and Belgium. At the World Cup, Spain and Chile are in the same group, despite being two of five best teams in the world according to a more accurate ranking system. Belgium, on the other hand, landed in the easiest group.
The strength of your group determines everything in the World Cup. And based on the discrepancy between FIFA and SPI, many of the groups in Brazil are mis-seeded.
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