The rankings have always been based on results against other nations, with the strength of the nation one country is taking on taken into account. So a draw for lowly Wales against a team such as Holland would be worth far more than a win for Spain against, say, Austria.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, almost. Except FIFA now take into account only results over the last four years. What this has done is strange. England have been climbing the rankings in recent months despite performances remaining distinctly average, while France are stuck in 15th place in spite of their dramatic post World Cup improvement. Holland, meanwhile, have leapt to the top of the pile, whilst Uruguay have only just, one year after finishing in fourth place at the World Cup, reached the top 10.
None of this makes much sense, but as with all things FIFA, there is a logic there, even if it is flawed and full of holes. In this case, it appears that England are climbing thanks to the fact that some of their worst results under Steve McClaren have been taken out of consideration in recent months. During the disastrous run during qualifying for the 2008 European Championships, England lost at Croatia, drew away to Israel and at home to Macedonia. All of these results no longer count in their FIFA ranking calculation, giving a boost to their position as results become increasingly based on those of the Fabio Capello reign. And though his spell at the helm hasn’t been a roaring success, it has been considerably better than under the now Nottingham Forest coach.
Indeed, England’s defeats at Russia and at home to Croatia are soon to also be taken out of consideration. It means that conceivably England could climb once more next month and the month after to 3rd, just behind World Cup finalists Holland and Spain, barring disastrous results during qualification against Montenegro and Bulgaria.
And if that were to happen, it would not be a coincidence to see the trio top the rankings. The facts are that in recent qualification programmes, England, Spain, Holland and Germany have been the top four teams, qualifying with the most ease and convincingly. But it doesn’t seem quite right that the rankings are more a reflection of a team’s ability to qualify for major tournaments. For a start, there are two qualification tournaments in Europe – the World Cup and European Championships, whereas in South America there is just the one, as all countries automatically qualify for the Copa America.
Then take the case of France, who are still languishing in 15th place. It will take until the end of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 for their performances against South Africa, Uruguay and Mexico to not be recognised any longer. This seems farcical, whilst they were deservedly lambasted in every way for their appalling performance in South Africa and before under Raymond Domenech, it seems harsh to punish Blanc’s side’s FIFA ranking now because of it. France are clearly a better team than England.
As are Uruguay, who have only recently joined the elite according to FIFA. In this case, FIFA is a little less out of kilter, correcting their errors just a year late, rather than four. But it seems nonsensical to calculate this way. Surely it is time to calculate rankings based on results during that calendar year or season, than by the previous four. At the moment anomalies play too big a part, and results still count towards a team’s ranking when they have changed beyond all recognition. And that plays a part in the next qualification programme. France were ranked in the second group of seeds for World Cup 2014 qualifying, and will now have to face Spain. Perhaps it is deserving that they face them for their poor showing in South Africa, as well as fortuitous win over Ireland in the play off, but it reinforces a cycle, and punishes countries sometimes more undeserving of such treatment. FIFA is currently looking at ways to reform the game and clean up football; this probably isn’t a priority, but it should not be ignored, either.