by Trevor Whenham - 03/17/06
If you're a fan of American sports there is a pretty good chance you have cursed the BCS at some time, complaining that the wrong team got in and the right team didn't. You've probably laughed at a system that overcompensates for teams with history like Notre Dame and punishes teams like Utah that play in a weak conference. Well, if you think the BCS has problems, you should check out the FIFA world soccer rankings. They make the BCS look like a perfect system.
The calculation of the FIFA rankings is constantly being revised and updated. Currently they are calculated over an eight-year period. All games that a team plays are considered, with major competitions given more weight than friendly matches or preliminary qualifiers. Only the top seven matches in a year are given full weight and matches are given less weight progressively year by year. Not just wins, losses and draws matter, though. The number of goals scored is also factored in as well as the location of the match. Further complicating things, there are multiplication factors for the importance of the match and the strength of the home regions of the teams. It's not a wonder that the results of the calculations are almost always controversial.
There are 205 national teams that are ranked. That's almost twice as many as the BCS has to deal with, which would be bad enough. To complicate further complicate the FIFA rankings, none of the teams play a fixed schedule and the rosters of the team are constantly changing depending upon the availability of players and the importance of the match. Some teams will play two or three times more matches than other teams. It's not even comparing apples to oranges, it's like comparing apples to wildebeests.
With so many factors and difficulties, the only real way to compare two teams is in head-to-head action. Unfortunately, teams don't play anywhere close to enough matches to make head-to-head comparisons possible. Brazil and Germany are arguably the two best teams of the last three decades, yet they have only met on the pitch once, in the 2002 World Cup final. That's just one of a hundred examples where the rankings are short on meaning.
Since major championships are so important, teams that miss out on those championships are punished, and that punishment haunts them. Good teams can miss out on big tournaments - ask Cameroon, Denmark, Nigeria or Turkey, top 20 ranked teams that aren't going to be in Germany for the 2006 World Cup. Those teams will suffer in the FIFA rankings for eight years because of missing out of a major tournament that only comes up once every four years. If a similar eight-year approach were taken to college basketball rankings, Georgia Tech would be fairly high in the rankings because of their appearance in the 2004 final and UCLA would be poorly regarded because of the largely disastrous Steve Lavin era. The problems would be obvious when you saw that Georgia Tech was 11-17 this year, while UCLA cruised through the Pac-10 virtually untouched.
Even though the FIFA rankings try to compensate for regional differences, there are clearly teams that benefit from their geographic location. Most notable are the U.S. and Mexico, tied for sixth in the world rankings. Their region of North and Central America is desperately weak, with only those two teams offering any real competition. Mexico has been to 13 World Cups and the U.S. has qualified for eight. The other eight countries in the region have only combined for 11 World Cup appearances. Even with regional weighting, the success of those countries in almost every regional tournament makes them look stronger than they really are. The tournament odds make the perceived value of the rankings clear - despite their lofty rankings, Mexico is just the No. 12 choice at Bodog to win the World Cup and the U.S. is No. 13.
Those are far from the only discrepancies between odds and the FIFA rankings. England is ranked No. 9, but it is the second choice at Bodog. The Czech Republic, No. 2 in the rankings, is the tenth favorite at Bodog. But perhaps the most glaring inconsistency is Germany. If you looked at its world ranking, No. 19, you wouldn't be optimistic about its chances, yet it is the third favorite. The obvious consistency is Brazil, which is highly favored and ranked No. 1 by a wide margin. Of course, Brazil is so good that any system would put them at the top of the pile.
There are lots of alternative systems that have been proposed. The most widely trumpeted is the ELO football rating, which is, strangely, based on the favored system for ranking chess players. It generally does a better job of creating more realistic rankings, but it is also far from perfect. Germany's No. 11 ranking with this system is still far below the assigned odds. FIFA will be changing their ranking system again in July, trying yet again to iron out the kinks.
It all comes down to this - ultimately, who really cares about the FIFA rankings? In college football rankings have at least some meaning, if only because the absence of a playoff means we need some way to know how the season ended and what it meant. Soccer has the ultimate playoff - the World Cup. Not only that, the regional qualifiers are like playoffs to get into the tournament. All that means that the FIFA rankings are virtually meaningless. They aren't used to determine qualifiers for tournaments and bookmakers clearly don't use them to set their odds. The FIFA rankings are a broken system but, unlike the BCS, there is really no good reason to put a lot of effort into fixing them.