My take on the FIFA ranking

14 décembre 2022
Every once in a while, I give my unsolicited opinion on a random topic. Hot take or cold take? You are the judge. Today, I’m gonna talk about the FIFA ranking.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the FIFA ranking is the best way to determine the best football national team in the world at the present moment. Also, in my opinion, the World Cup is the most terrible way to achieve that same goal. And no, I don’t say that because Belgium was ranked #1 in the FIFA ranking for a long time. Let me explain…

First, it's important to understand what the FIFA ranking is. Simply put, the FIFA ranking is like the ATP ranking of football, where teams win points when they beat other teams. The ranking system has been introduced in 1992 and, responding to criticism, it has been revamped on several occasions, but since August 2018 it has adopted a variation of the Elo rating system used in chess.

The concept is pretty simple: you score more points if you beat a team that is highly ranked and fewer points if you beat a team that is badly ranked (so you’ll score more points if you beat Argentina than if you beat Vietnam).

If you’re not familiar with chess but have watched the Social Network movie, the Elo rating system is what the characters in the movie use to rank girls on their Facemash website.

Even though the FIFA ranking is controversial, the Elo rating system has been used since forever in chess and has been generally accepted as a great way to rank chess players, so there’s no valid scientific reason to say it would not make sense when applied to football.

So let’s move on to the second point of my argument: why is the World Cup the worst way to determine which is the best team in the world?

And don’t get me wrong, the World Cup will be won by a very good team, but not necessarily the best team (it’s almost never the best team that wins it). Football is random and unpredictable. As football is a low-scoring sport where 0-0s occur quite often, it’s not unusual to see a single unfortunate event influence the fate of a match. A weak team can score a few minutes after kick-off and then put everything in defense to win a match against a strong team. It basically happens all the time and happened a few times during the World Cup already.

In other sports, the best team usually wins. Take basketball for example. It’s a high-scoring sport and unless your star player gets injured, a single event is unlikely to completely change a game. It’s not like a team will luckily score at the beginning of the game and then defend until the end to keep its advantage. The best team that day will eventually win. And even if it doesn’t happen, the playoff system where you have to win the most out of 5 games will ensure that the best team overall will end up winning.

That’s why I don’t bet on football matches. It's a waste of money. You’ll lose most of the time. And if you happen to win every once in a while, it’s not because you’re knowledgeable, it’s because you’re lucky.

Before the World Cup, a mathematical model implemented by the University of Oxford predicted who would win the World Cup. They got it hilariously wrong. In the end, it’s probably a better idea to trust an octopus for football predictions.

In the same vein of the FIFA ranking trying to be as accurate as possible, I like the expected goals (xG) stat a lot. It shows who should have won a match.

If you’re not familiar with the stat, it tells how many goals the two teams should have scored if everything happened according to logic. If a player misses an unmissable goal from very close range, the xG would say something like 0.98 when in reality it counts as 0. In the same way, if a player scores an incredibly lucky goal from the middle of the pitch, the xG would be something like 0.01 but it really counts as 1. There are countless examples of matches where the team with the higher xG actually lost. For example, Morocco lost all of its first 5 games on xG during the World Cup. If logic was respected, they should have been out after 3 games.

And according to xG, England, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina were the best teams at the World Cup.

You understand where I’m going. To win a tournament like the World Cup, you don’t need to be the best team. You just have to be lucky 7 times. Morocco was already lucky 5 times, it wouldn’t be that crazy if that happens 2 more times.

We actually have a few examples of unexpected teams winning an important tournament. The most famous examples are Denmark winning the Euro in 1992 and Greece winning the same competition 12 years later.

Championships are much better predictors of the best team than a competition like the World Cup. After more than 30 games, it’s usually the best team that comes on top, but not always. You can still have an incredibly lucky season or an incredibly unlucky season. We should have a season of about 1000 matches to start being statistically representative, the same way polls need to interview at least 1000 people to have accurate results, but obviously, it's not going to happen anytime soon, and football will stay unpredictable forever.

But even if you're crazy about mathematics like I am, I must admit a predictable football would take away everything I love about it. So, let’s not try to change it. And I hope Morocco wins the World Cup!