The Impact of FIFA World Rankings

By | October 15, 2013

After the conclusion of the World Cup, a new cycle of FIFA World Rankings begins. Every month, FIFA releases an updated list ranking every national football team — #1 to #207. For most fans, myself included, these rankings seem arbitrary. What does it matter that Croatia is ranked #10 and USA is #13? What does that even mean? Portugal has 1029 points compared to Mexico’s 839. So what? How does FIFA arrive at these point totals? Well, after scouring the internet and solving some middle-school-level math equations, I’ve finally figured out how it all works. To my surprise, it actually makes sense. I could attempt to summarize and simplify the process, but FIFA actually does a pretty good job with explaining how they arrive at each team’s point total.

The basic logic of these calculations is simple: any team that does well in world football wins points which enable it to climb the world ranking.

A team’s total number of points over a four-year period is determined by adding:

· the average number of points gained from matches during the past 12 months;
· the average number of points gained from matches older than 12 months (depreciates yearly).

Calculation of points for a single match

The number of points that can be won in a match depends on the following factors:

• Was the match won or drawn? (M)
• How important was the match (ranging from a friendly match to a FIFA World Cup™ match)? (I)
• How strong was the opposing team in terms of ranking position and the confederation to which they belong? (T and C)

These factors are brought together in the following formula to ascertain the total number of points (P).

P = M x I x T x C

The following criteria apply to the calculation of points:

M: Points for match result

Teams gain 3 points for a victory, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a defeat. In a penalty shoot-out, the winning team gains 2 points and the losing team gains 1 point.

I: Importance of match

Friendly match (including small competitions): I = 1.0

FIFA World Cup™ qualifier or confederation-level qualifier: I = 2.5

Confederation-level final competition or FIFA Confederations Cup: I = 3.0

FIFA World Cup™ final competition: I = 4.0

T: Strength of opposing team

The strength of the opponents is based on the formula: 200 – the ranking position of the opponents
As an exception to this formula, the team at the top of the ranking is always assigned the value 200 and the teams ranked 150th and below are assigned a minimum value of 50. The ranking position is taken from the opponents’ ranking in the most recently published FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

C: Strength of confederation

When calculating matches between teams from different confederations, the mean value of the confederations to which the two competing teams belong is used. The strength of a confederation is calculated on the basis of the number of victories by that confederation at the last three FIFA World Cup™ competitions (see following page). Their values are as follows:

AFC/CAF = 0.86 OFC = 0.85

So, now that we understand the math, we can talk about the bigger issue — the impact of the FIFA World Rankings on the World Cup. First, it is important to explain how the World Cup draw works. There are 32 teams that play in the World Cup — 8 group of 4. To determine which nations end up in which group, one pot is created of the top 7 nations, ranked by FIFA, and the host nation, in this case, Brazil. The remaining 24 teams are placed in pots separated by “geographic and sports criteria“.


By being one of the top 7 teams, a nation is arguably given an easier road to advance as they do not have to play the 7 other FIFA-ranked “soccer-powerhouses” in group play. Thus, besides qualifying for the World Cup, every nation’s goal is to be one of the top 7 seeds.

This year’s World Cup seeding hinges on the upcoming October 17th FIFA World Rankings. As of today’s World Cup qualifying matches, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland (right?! who would of thought?) have all clinched a seed for the World Cup finals draw. Fighting for those last two spots are Colombia, Uruguay, Netherlands, and Italy. ESPNFC’s Dale Johnson has thoroughly outlined what must happen in order for two of these teams to clinch a seed.

To say the least, the entire process is not easy. While there are a lot of factors and variables that go into the FIFA World Rankings, there is just as much ambiguousness when it comes to how these rankings are employed. The last several qualification matches will determine the final rankings and where each nation will end up. The 2014 World Cup Draw will take place December 6th.

Click Here for more information on the FIFA World Rankings.

5 thoughts on “The Impact of FIFA World Rankings

  1. Bryan Silverman

    Hey Matt – this is a fascinating article and looking at the implications the rankings have, especially with the impending World Cup. When reading an article like this, I can’t help but think about the BCS rankings and how this affects the playoffs and, as a result, the overall championship and other bowl games in college football. While it seems like, for most of the season, the rankings may not matter so much, as with the time passing between World Cups (other than the effect on other tournaments), the end of the season comes and there is always debate about how the rankings are created and what the rankings should actually mean. It is very interesting to look at what these seemingly arbitrary, yet very calculated, rankings mean in the scheme of things.

  2. Austin Ness

    Hey Matt, I really enjoyed reading this article and learning about how the FIFA World Rankings work. If you’re interested, I definitely recommend checking out the ESPN Soccer Power Index, created in 2009 by Nate Silver. Silver is the creator of the PECOTA player projection system, which takes a current baseball player, finds similar types of players throughout history, and then uses these players and their statistics throughout their career in order to forecast how the current player will play in the future.

    SPI is really fascinating because it has impressive depth that the FIFA World Rankings can’t match. The model is generally the same, with the strength of opposition, strength of confederation, and importance of the match all taken into consideration, but all of these factors are much more detail than for the FIFA rankings, and new statistics are added as well. For example, SPI can monitor individual players’ minutes across recent competitions to determine how strong a team’s lineup is for any given game. If Spain is traveling to North America for a friendly, and all of their Barcelona and Real Madrid players aren’t participating because they need to rest, then SPI can evaluate Spain’s starters for that game. SPI would determine that they aren’t players who usually play for the national team, so the model can adjust for the weaker Spanish lineup.

    You can find an in-depth explanation of SPI here:
    The mathematics and statistics behind the model can get pretty complicated, so it’s not exactly an easy read. However, there’s also simpler article on the purpose behind SPI here:

    No ranking system can come close to being perfect for soccer, but it’s still interesting to compare SPI’s rankings with FIFA’s, especially during important like these, when teams are seeded for the World Cup. Switzerland, for instance, is only #20 in the latest SPI rankings, nowhere close to their lofty FIFA ranking that some have claimed is undeserved.

  3. Pingback: Honduras, Chile and Ecuador Qualify For World Cup 2014, While Mexico Make Playoffs: Nightly Soccer Report | The football blogs by BetPowers

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