Are the FIFA World Rankings Accurate?

First introduced in December 1992, FIFA has had a World Ranking system in place ever since. Despite it being relatively well-established by this point, world rankings are not something fans tend to discuss much, at least compared to other sports. In tennis or golf, for example, taking the number one spot is a real privilege where as it is not such a big deal in football. Ask a football fan what rank their country currently has and most will not be able to tell you.

What is the reason behind this limited interest in the FIFA World Rankings? Is it due to fans perceiving them as inaccurate or are there other factors in play? The former has been true in the past, harming the reputation of the rankings, but the current calculation method is a big improvement. Now using the Elo rating system (named after Hungarian-American physicist, Arpad Elo), FIFA appear to have a method that is relatively fit for purpose, despite some limitations.

These limitations do lead to some slightly strange ranking placements but by fixing one problem you are likely to create another. The current system may undergo some small tweaks but we would not expect any radical changes like we have seen in the past. Let us take a look at how the calculations have changed over time and give a full judgement on the accuracy of the current rankings.

Changes to the Ranking System

Country flags on footballFIFA’s first system for calculating rankings lasted between 1992 and 1998 and was devised by two Swiss lecturers from the University of Zurich. In keeping with a standard league format it gave teams three points for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss. The calculation considered other factors though such as the relative strength of the two teams involved, whether it was played home or away, goals scored, goals conceded, regional strength, and the importance of the match.

While this seems comprehensive enough it punished teams that did not play more important matches, which had a superior multiplier. England, who missed out on the 1994 World Cup, actually went down seven places despite spending all of 1994 unbeaten. In response to the criticism of this initial system, FIFA released a new version which scaled up the point ranking by a factor of 10. It also removed the incentive for teams to play as many games as possible because only the seven best-scoring results annually would be taken into account.

The next change followed in 2006 with FIFA announcing they were cutting the evaluation period from eight years to four. Additionally, they simplified the calculation with goals scored and home/away no longer having any impact. This was not particularly well-liked though and in 2018, it was replaced with an Elo-based ranking system.

One of the big issues of the 2006-2018 system was the confederation weightings. It meant teams from lower-rated confederations often struggled to make progress because they typically played matches against sides from the same confederation. This was abolished in the latest version and the current system is largely seen as the best FIFA have produced to date. In April 2021, it was tweaked ever so slightly so that each team’s score has two decimal places (zero previously). Thanks to this, you are extremely unlikely to have two teams tied on a rank, which was not unusual before.

How Accurate Are the Current Rankings?

FIFA logo on building
Credit swisshippo via Bigstockphoto

The current rankings give a decent picture of the current state of international football but they are by no means perfect. Having a perfect system is near impossible though given relatively few international matches are played each year. The Elo system works fantastically in chess because players have so many matches. Similarly, the system in tennis works because professionals are playing upwards of 60 matches per year.

International football teams though may only be looking at around 10 matches a year, or a maximum of around 20 if it’s a year of a tournament. With not a huge amount of matches and 200+ nations, there is not enough data to paint a reliable picture. To get ‘fair’ rankings, most domestic leagues require teams involved to play each other twice. This means having a 36+ game season of teams already grouped by quality in order to produce an accurate representation of their relative quality.

There are enough games, however, for the world ranking system to produce a generally accurate list. It is not going to have San Marino on top and Argentina at the bottom, or anything close to something this absurd. Looking at the latest rankings, there are perhaps only a couple of placements you might have queries about.

FIFA World Rankings: April 2024

Ranking Country
1 Argentina
2 France
3 Belgium
4 England
5 Brazil
6 Portugal
7 Netherlands
8 Spain
9 Italy
10 Croatia
11 USA
12 Colombia
13 Morocco
14 Mexico
15 Uruguay
16 Germany
17 Senegal
18 Japan
19 Switzerland
20 Iran

At a glance, three countries that stand out as having a generous rating are the USA, Mexico and Iran. USA have been dominant playing teams on their continent but they have generally fared poorly against European opposition. In fact, their record over the last two years against European sides is won 0, drawn 2, lost 4. Likewise, Mexico fare well for winning a lot of local opponents but their record against South American and European teams is not good.

Finally, you have Iran, a country that has never progressed out of the World Cup group stages. They boast a strong record in Asia but they would very likely be the underdogs when facing many sides below them in the rankings from South America or Europe. What this shows is that it is difficult to have a system that properly accounts for ability differences across regions when they play so few games against one another.

Why Does the System Matter?

Argentina's Estadio Monumental
Argentina’s Estadio Monumental (Credit Fulviusbsas via Wikipedia)

You might be wondering why teams even care about their ranking when football is all about winning matches and in particular ones that will give them trophies. While this is true, the rankings are quite important because they determine seeding for tournaments and their qualifiers. A better pot is usually advantageous so teams will want to achieve as high a ranking as possible for the purpose.

Can Teams ‘Game’ the System?

Knowing that rankings do have some importance, is it possible to game the system and have teams attempted this in the past? Under the current system, there does not seem to be an obvious way to gain any sort of advantage. This was not the case during the 2010s though as there were several instances of teams avoiding non-competitive matches against weaker teams that would lower their average score, even if they won.

Ahead of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Romania played just one friendly in the year before the draw for this reason. Similarly, Switzerland and Poland used this trick ahead of the 2014 and 2018 World Cup finals draw respectively. In all cases, the tactic worked to perfection as they ended up in Pot 1. With this ‘average’ rating no longer used though, teams cannot end up penalised for winning low-quality matches.