FIFA world rankings may be flawed, but they're not meaningless

Monday July 22nd, 2013

Brek Shea's goal vs. Costa Rica gave the U.S. a 1-0 win -- and 1,275 points in the FIFA rankings.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A lot of soccer people complain about the FIFA world rankings -- and that's if they care enough to even have an opinion. I get it. Once a month FIFA releases the new list, and once a month I post the link on Twitter, and once a month my followers respond with creative new ways to say it doesn't have much credibility. It's the same way with polls and computer rankings in a lot of other sports, like college football and basketball.

But one thing you can't say is that the FIFA rankings are meaningless. If FIFA continues its policy from World Cup 2010, the rankings will be used to determine the top-seeded teams in seven of the eight World Cup groups next year (the host gets the other one, in this case Brazil). And if you're a top group seed, that means you can avoid any of the other heavyweights in the World Cup group stage.

So instead of just complaining, over the last few days I took a deep dive into how the FIFA rankings work. The timing seemed right, since the CONCACAF Gold Cup is in full swing and the tournament will have a big influence on where the U.S. and Mexico and the region's other teams stand in the next rankings. In a rare display of transparency, FIFA also makes it easy enough for everyone by posting the formula it uses for the rankings.

But before we get to that, some news I picked up from plugging in the latest numbers on my spreadsheet: Heading into Wednesday's Gold Cup semifinals, the U.S. has passed archrival Mexico in the FIFA rankings for the first time in 26 months -- or to be more specific, for the first time since Mexico's paradigm-shifting 4-2 win over the U.S. in the 2011 Gold Cup final.

The U.S. (which was No. 22 in the most recent FIFA release) now has 911 points in the rankings compared to 903 for Mexico (which was No. 20 entering the Gold Cup). As recently as August 2012, Mexico was No. 18 and 18 spots ahead of the No. 36 U.S. in the rankings. But honestly, I think the U.S.'s rise and Mexico's drop paint a fairly accurate picture of how these two teams have played over the last year. The U.S. is in first place in the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal and has won an all-time-record nine straight games.

Meanwhile, Mexico has won just once in six games and is in third place in the Hex. Head-to-head, the U.S. tied Mexico in a road World Cup qualifier in March and beat El Tri in an away friendly last August. And there could be two more U.S.-Mexico showdowns in the next six weeks: A potential Gold Cup final this Sunday and a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 10.

Whether you care about the U.S. passing Mexico in the rankings is another matter. When I asked U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann the other day, the look on his face was of someone who just encountered a very bad smell. He shook his head and didn't say a single word.

DaMarcus Beasley was more forthcoming on Sunday. "We always strive to be the best team in CONCACAF," said Beasley, who plays in Mexico for Puebla. "It doesn't matter if it's Mexico or Panama or whoever, and it doesn't matter if it's a World Cup year or a qualifying year. We always want to be in front of Mexico. That's our biggest rival. The games aren't as crazy as they were when I was younger, but at the same time Mexico is a great team. We don't look too much at the FIFA rankings, but it's always nice to hear that we're ahead of them."

One thing I will say about FIFA's current rankings system: It's a heck of a lot better than the formula that was in place as recently as World Cup 2006, which produced clangingly tone-deaf results. (Do you remember that the U.S. was No. 4 in the world heading into that World Cup? Yikes.) Today's rankings formula passes the smell test in most ways, though not in the way that it penalizes the upcoming World Cup host for not playing in any World Cup qualifiers.

Anyway, here are some of the big-picture things I learned on my dive into the FIFA rankings:

• The rankings produce a point total for every senior national team game played, which is comprised of four factors: the result of the game; the importance of the game (friendly, World Cup qualifier, continental championship/Confederations Cup, World Cup finals game); the ranking of the opponent; and a multiplier taking into account the confederation(s) of the two teams involved.

• As a result, the FIFA rankings do not take into account the goal margin in a game or whether a game is played at home or on the road. I'm not a math genius, but that's a problem. My preferred rankings formula at (which is based on a system first used to rank chess grandmasters) does use goal margin and game venues, which gives them a big gold star.

• In the FIFA rankings, average points-per-game results from the last 48 months are taken into account, but they're weighted in a way that makes sense. Games from the past 12 months matter more than those from the 12 months before that, and so on.

• Even this B-team CONCACAF Gold Cup matters more in the FIFA rankings than the A-team World Cup qualifiers taking place this year. That seems silly. In fact, the U.S.'s Gold Cup group-stage win over Costa Rica last week -- in a match where both teams already knew they were advancing -- produced the Americans' second-highest single-game points total of the 65 matches the U.S. has played in the last 48 months. The 1,275 points the U.S. picked up in that Costa Rica win were exceeded by only the U.S.'s World Cup 2010 victory against Algeria (1,775).

Does this Gold Cup have a chance of artificially enhancing the U.S.'s FIFA ranking? The answer is yes, especially if the Americans win the tournament.

• The most persuasively designed national team rankings I've seen are by Nate Silver, the political and sports statistics expert who was just hired away by ESPN from the New York Times on Monday. In 2009, Silver launched his Soccer Power Index for ESPN. His formula is complex, but it seeks to be predictive, not backward-looking, when it comes to forecasting how national teams would fare against each other with their A squads.

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