How can it be the case that England climbed the ratings to become the fourth best team in world football when they had failed to win any of their previous four matches at home? And after they had failed to even qualify for Euro 2008 and suffered an abject second-round exit at the 2010 World Cup?
That fourth-place ranking was in June. By July they had moved back down to sixth, which is still an absurdly high placing for a team with such an average record of late under the leadership of Fabio Capello. But, after their friendly match against Holland was postponed, they bounced back to sixth.
Anyone watching England’s inept defeat at home to France last November knows just how mistaken the FIFA listings are. That’s not to say that France’s current ranking of 15th is particularly wrong given their miserable World Cup last summer, but surely they should be at least on a par with England.
One of the reasons why England slipped down to sixth was because Uruguay won the Copa America. That victory was hardly such a surprise given that Uruguay reached the World Cup semi-finals in South Africa. What is ludicrous is that it required the Copa America triumph to lift them up 13 places from an insultingly low 18th place in the FIFA rankings.
Even then, Uruguay were still behind Brazil, who had been knocked out of the Copa America in the quarter-finals by Paraguay. And where were Paraguay?
Oh yes, the finalists of Copa America, and World Cup quarter-finalists like Brazil in 2010, were considered just the 26th best team in the world. While Brazil and England are always overrated because of their historic status and prestige in the global game, a small nation like Paraguay is treated with disdain.
At least South American football is given some weight. Ivory Coast are the one and only African team in the top 33 of the FIFA rankings, placed 14th. How can this be correct? How can Ghana, quarter-finalists at the last World Cup and only denied a place in the semi-finals by the handball of Luis Suarez, be down at 36th? Remember Ghana’s 1-1 draw against England at Wembley earlier this year? No reasonable observer can believe there were 30 places difference between those two nations. Ghana are not a weaker team than Israel, Sweden, Australia and Montenegro – who are all placed above them.
But does any of this matter? Aren’t the rankings just artificial candyfloss?
Unfortunately, they are not irrelevant. Instead, the FIFA rankings are used to determine the status of countries at the draws for both the qualifying stages and the groups in the finals of tournaments. This means that rankings can falsely boost a team into an advantageous position, or can seriously harm a nation’s prospects.
A clear example of this is the current case of Wales, whose poor form has seen them slip down to 112th in the ratings, exactly level with the Faroe Islands.
When the seeding groups were arranged for the European section of the 2014 World Cup qualifying draw, it came out that the joint-112th position was right on the borderline between being seeded fifth or sixth.
Initially, FIFA placed Wales higher, but an eagle-eyed Faroese student, Jakup Emil Hansen, calculated that his nation was actually 0.07 points better off. The authorities concurred and the Faroes went into the fifth pot – and now have two “easier” matches against Kazakhstan, while Wales are in a tough group with Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and Macedonia.
This was a case where the statistical difference between the two nations should have been ignored as worthless.
The proper solution? A play-off between the Faroes and Wales – and may the best team win in the old-fashioned way.
By Jim Holden