Here's The Completely Flawed Formula FIFA Uses To Determine The Top World Cup Seeds

To determine the eight seeded teams at the 2014 World Cup, FIFA uses
the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

This points-based ranking system is oversimplified at best, and egregiously flawed at worst. Yet it’s an incredibly important factor in which teams will make it out of the group stage next summer in Brazil.

There are eight groups at the World Cup. To keep the best teams from landing in the same group, FIFA puts the top eight teams in the world in separate groups.

And to determine the top eight teams in the world, FIFA uses its own flawed ranking.

The formula they use is awful. It ignores things like goal differential, home field advantage, and stakes — resulting in a crude list that doesn’t give you an full picture of world soccer.

We’ll get deeper into why it’s so bad later on. But for now, let’s break down 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 (point 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 number is fixed based on perceived level of each competition, as follows:
    • Friendly game: 1.0
    • World Cup qualifier: 2.5
    • Confederation’s Cup or confederation-level competition (like the Euro): 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 number 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.

The ranking takes the last four years of games into account, with more recent games weighted more heavily, 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.

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.

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’ve 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.

YOU GET ZERO POINTS FOR A LOSS NO MATTER WHAT. This is egregiously dumb. 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.

The “strength of confederation” metric is stupid and 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.

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 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.

Take the number of points that these two games count for in the current FIFA rankings as an example:

  • Spain 4, Italy 0 in the final of the Euro 2012: 846 points for Spain (3 [win]* 3 [confederation tournament] *188 [Italy ranked #12 in the world] * 1 [European opponent] *0.5 [happened last year])
  • USA 5, El Salvador 1 in the group stage of the 2013 Gold Cup: 902.88 points for USA (3 [win] * 3 [confederation tournament] * 114 [El Salvador ranked 86th in the world] * 0.88 [North American opponent] * 1.0 [happened this year])

One game was a comprehensive victory over an elite opponent in the biggest competition in the world outside of the World Cup. The other was a Gold Cup game where both teams were playing their “B” teams.

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 will be seeded at the World Cup, based on the October FIFA World Ranking:

  1. Spain (ranked 1st)
  2. Germany (ranked 2nd)
  3. Argentina (ranked 3rd)
  4. Colombia (ranked 4th)
  5. Belgium (ranked 5th)
  6. Switzerland (ranked 7th)
  7. Uruguay (Ranked 6th, but still need to beat Jordan in a playoff to qualify. If they lose, the Netherlands gets the final seed)
  8. 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 are the actual top-8 teams in the world:

  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Spain
  4. Germany
  5. Chile
  6. Colombia
  7. France
  8. Uruguay

The strength of your group determines everything in the World Cup. And based on the discrepancy between FIFA and SPI, at least two (25%) of the groups in Brazil are mis-seeded.

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