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FIFA World Rankings vs Elo Ratings

Why are the men's FIFA World Rankings subject to tons of criticism from fans and the media, and how does it compare to another, well-known ranking method?

The FIFA World Rankings have been subject to a constant stream of criticism since they were introduced in 1992 due to its tendency of under- or (mostly) over-valuing nations.

Eyebrows were raised when Norway jumped to second in October 1993 and July-August 2005, while the USA players were surprised to find themselves fourth in the world in 2006. Changes were made to the ranking formula that year which has reduced criticism a bit but still sees it come under fire from some quarters.

Of course, most people tend to take these rankings with a pinch of salt, but they are still important given they are used to determine seedings for most major tournament qualifiers and finals. However, that hasn’t stopped people from creating alternative lists, with the most notable one being the World Football Elo Ratings. This is based on a system created by Hungarian mathematician Dr. Arpad Elo that was originally used to rank chess players and has since been adapted for football.

A modified version of Elo is already used for the FIFA Women’s World Rankings but in the men’s game it’s slightly different. There are also massive differences between some team’s FIFA and Elo rankings, which is to be expected. However, it’s slightly surprising (or not) to find that the official world champions, Germany, are only fifth on the official world rankings whereas the Elo ratings has them at number one.

Meanwhile Belgium, officially the second best team in the world, are only the 11th best according to Elo, while Wales moved all the way up to eighth on the FIFA list in October 2015 (they are 24th at the moment and 47th according to Elo), despite not playing in a major tournament since 1958. Not to discredit Chris Coleman’s team and what they’ve achieved in the past few years, but it did seem a bit odd.

Asian teams (including Australia) in particular seem to have been given a rough deal by FIFA, which has South Korea and Japan at 56 and 57 respectively. However, Elo has the AFC superpowers at 19 and 20 respectively, so what gives? Maybe some of that is down to FIFA’s “regional strength” multiplier, which considers the relative strength of entire confederations. The AFC multiplier is 0.85 while the UEFA and COMNEBOL multipliers are 0.99 and 1.00 respectively.

Also, unlike FIFA, Elo takes into account factors such as “home field advantage” and margin of victory, which is designed to give a more accurate impression of how many points are exchanged between opposing teams based on the result (more on the Elo formula can be found here). Both rankings consider the match result, a team’s previous rating, the status of a match – with friendlies being the least important and World Cup matches being the most important – and the expected result of a match.

While Elo ratings are ongoing and take into account every single result in a team’s history, FIFA only consider matches from the previous four years (a World Cup cycle) with more emphasis on results from the past 12 months (for more information on this, click here). Until July 2006, they considered the previous eight years, but after much criticism, this was scaled back to four years.

Perhaps one reason why there are three South American teams in the official top four is that they’ve played in a major tournament in the past 12 months (the 2015 Copa America) whereas UEFA teams haven’t. As we already know, match status is a factor with major tournament finals considered more important than qualifiers, but COMNEBOL teams occupy five of the top eight places in the Elo rankings, so the logical conclusion could be that South American are just really really good.

A common theme of the FIFA Rankings is seeing the hosts of an upcoming major tournament plummet down the standings. Take Euro 2016 hosts France for example. After rising to 10th just after the 2014 World Cup, they are now a lowly 21st in the world despite winning 11 of their 17 matches since Brazil 2014 and being many people’s favourites to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy in July. This is because they’ve played nothing but friendlies since then while everyone else in Europe has played mostly qualifiers (which are considered 2.5 times more important then friendlies by FIFA), which for now has given Les Bleus a “false” ranking.

Furthermore, a 2009 comparative study of eight football ranking methods by three professors from the University of Amsterdam found that Elo was the best for predicting football matches while the men’s FIFA method didn’t perform so well. But the truth is that no ranking system will ever be 100 percent accurate and even though as football fans, we like to have a good old-fashioned moan when the latest FIFA Rankings are released, there is at least an easier way of comparing two international teams than there was a quarter of a century ago.


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