FIFA World Rankings and Armenia: What’s in a Number?

Numerology can be described as the study of the mystical relationships between a count or measurement and other aspects of life. The importance (or mysticism) associated with the FIFA World Ranking numbers and how they relate to the Armenian national team could be debated at length. Simplifying the argument, one could ask which are more important, team performances or team results.

A simple example of how the rankings can be interpreted or misinterpreted is the case of  the USMNT. In April 2006, the US team was ranked number 4 in the world according to FIFA. One might have thought that to live up to that ranking, the U.S. team should have made the semi-final stage of that summer’s World Cup finals in Germany. They did in fact suffer elimination in the first round, finishing bottom of Group E with a solitary point to show for their efforts.

Those who put little credence in the ranking numbers may suggest that performances on the pitch should be the emphasis, with the ranking numbers taking care of themselves. They argue that better performances should equate to a better ranking. But since the system is effectively a league table of results–awarding points for positive results and nothing for losses–heroic performances in defeat go unrewarded. On the other hand, result-orientated individuals may suggest that the rankings do not lie, and that a nation’s position in the ranking table, based solely on results, is in fact just and fair.

Holding either stance in that debate depends on a person’s philosophy towards the game. It is probably fair to say that achieving good results with great performances is most desirable. Lately, Armenia has been proving that those elements are not mutually exclusive.

There is one very important role the rankings hold in the world of international soccer and that is how nations are seeded for World Cup and Euro qualification draws and also the finals themselves. UEFA uses its own rankings to seed Euro Championship tournaments, these are called UEFA coefficients. The FIFA ranking system is used to seed World Cup tournaments.

It should be every nation’s ambition to play on the greatest stage and being seeded higher in those draws generally means an easier route to qualification. Therefore, UEFA coefficients and FIFA ranking numbers cannot totally be dismissed.

Historically, Armenia’s route to major finals has been difficult, routinely being drawn from seeding pot 5 or higher. That means there have usually been at least four “better” teams in Armenia’s qualifying groups. An improvement in their form (and results) in the recent Euro 2012 qualifying campaign saw Armenia defy their seeding to finish third in their group. This has resulted in the team climbing the tables of both UEFA coefficients and FIFA Rankings.

Looking past Armenia’s immediate goal of World Cup 2014 qualification, the following paragraphs put forth an analysis of Armenia’s FIFA ranking position over the last 10 years. Also included is an attempted projection of Armenia’s future ranking, assuming the team continues with the performance level it exhibited during its recent Euro qualifying campaign.

The seeding that determines the qualifying groups for Euro 2016 in France will be finalized after World Cup 2014 qualification is complete. Armenia’s ranking number and subsequent seeding for the draw, coupled with the 2016 finals being expanded to 24 teams for the first time in history, could finally improve Armenia’s route to a finals competition. Such a route would be one that Armenia will have earned with their results on the pitch and with a little help from their mystical ranking numbers.

The UEFA coefficient and FIFA ranking numbers follow a similar general principle. They are numbers based on a calculation of national team results over a certain period of time. UEFA uses results from the three previous qualifying campaigns and finals, whereas FIFA uses results from the previous four calendar years. A closer look at FIFA’s calculation system follows.

FIFA’s rankings are usually updated and released on a monthly basis. Under the existing system, rankings are calculated using a team’s results from the previous four years. More recent results and more significant matches are given heavier weighting in the calculation.

Points per match = M x I x T x C

M       = Match Points.

I         = Match Importance.

T        = Strength of Opponent.

C       = Strength of Confederation.

Match Points are similar to any soccer league, 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, 0 points for a loss. A special consideration is included for matches decided by penalties. A penalty shoot-out winner earns 2 points and losers earn 1 point.

Match Importance is a  figure assigned to different categories of matches: 1.0 for a friendly match, 2.5 for a qualifier, 3.0 for a Confederations Cup and 4.0 for a major finals such as the Euro or World Cup.

Strength of Opponent is based on a formula: (200 – Current Ranking Position). An exception to this rule is applicable to teams ranked higher than 150. These teams have their ranking number capped at 150 and therefore a minimum value of 50 for this element of the equation. The other exception applies to the team at the top of the rankings. That team is assigned a default value of 200.

Strength of Confederation is the mean value of the two teams’ confederation weighting. The strength of a confederation is calculated on the basis of the number of victories by that confederation at the last three World Cup competitions. These numbers are currently UEFA/CONMEBOL 1.0, CONCACAF 0.88, AFC/CAF 0.86 and OFC 0.85.

The results from each of the previous four years are calculated using the formula described. An average number for each year is then calculated. The four yearly numbers are weighted 1.0, 0.5, 0.3 and 0.2 respectively and are then averaged to determine the final total ranking points. This method ensures results from the previous 12 months are given more importance than those from further back in time.

Armenia’s ranking of 44 from March 2012 equates to a points total of 601. This is calculated as follows:

Average

Weight

Average x Weight

2009

96.5

20%

19.3

2010

146.88

30%

44.06

2011

340.59

50%

170.3

2012

367.36

100%

367.36

Total 601

Taking a closer look at the Average numbers from the table before the weighting is applied, it can be seen that Armenia’s results have improved tremendously in the last 2 years. This is a direct result of having a much improved Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, helped significantly by home and away wins against Slovakia.

To illustrate the dramatic effect a win against highly ranked opposition in a significant match such as a Euro qualifier can have, two hypothetical calculations are presented below. First is the number of points Armenia would have earned by beating Slovakia in a friendly match. The second depicts the points earned from a Euro qualifier victory. For both calculations, a ranking of 26 is used for Slovakia, their ranking at the time of Armenia’s historic 4:0 victory in Zilina. The resultant calculations clearly display the effect a pair of qualifier wins has on a teams’ ranking position compared to friendly matches.

Armenia 4:0 Slovakia (Friendly)
Points = 3 x 1.0 x (200-26) x ((1.0+1.0)/2) = 522

Armenia 4:0 Slovakia (Euro Qualifier)
Points = 3 x 2.5 x (200-26) x ((1.0+1.0)/2) = 1305

World Cup 2014 qualifying begins in September of this year. At the time of the qualification draw in July 2011, Armenia was ranked 70 and seeded in pot 5. The draw presented them with some very challenging opponents but Armenia should feel optimistic, buoyed by their recent successes and Coach Minasyan’s leadership. The Group B line-up includes Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta.

Historic and Projected FIFA Ranking Position

The graph displays Armenia’s historic ranking data since 2002, their current ranking position (44), and a future projection of their ranking in 2014 based on the assumption that the upcoming qualifying campaign will be similar to their Euro 2012 results in which they finished third in the group and narrowly missed out on qualification. Based on Coach Minasyan’s goal of qualification for World Cup 2014, this is a conservative assumption.

As illustrated in the graph, Armenia’s consistency in Euro 2012 qualifying matches resulted in a meteoric rise from 103 to 44 in the rankings in the two-year span from 2010 to 2012. Two years is a typical qualifying time frame for World Cups and Euro Championships.

Back in 2007, in the midst of Euro 2008 qualifying, Armenia managed to record some good results over a short period during that campaign. Because of these results, Armenia had reached a ranking position of 83 by 2008 up from 119 the previous year. Consistency is key however, since a four year period is considered in the calculation. Poor results in subsequent years resulted in Armenia’s position plummeting yet again and that short term success merely reads as a blip on the radar.

The numbers used to generate the projected rankings are presented in the table below. The numbers are based on the assumption that Armenia will earn a projected 354 points for 2013 and 2014. This is an average of their actual 2011 and 2012 numbers. The resulting points total was then compared against the current FIFA ranking table to determine Armenia’s predicted position.

Average

Weight

Average x Weight

2011

340.59

20%

68.12

2012

367.36

30%

110.21

2013

353.98

50%

176.99

2014

353.98

100%

353.98

Total 709.3

Comparing the 709.3 points total to the ranking table released in March 2012, this would result in Armenia climbing to the new level of 35 in the world. More importantly, within their confederation of UEFA they would be ranked 22 by FIFA. Similarly, applying the same analysis to the UEFA coefficients could see Armenia improve to seeding pot 3 for Euro 2016, up from pot 5 for the Euro 2012 qualifying draw.

Playing devil’s advocate on the projected numbers, one could suggest that Armenia is over-achieving right now, and that the assumption of recent form continuing through World Cup 2014 qualifying is unrealistic. The theory of “regression towards the mean” suggests that Armenia’s ranking numbers would regress back towards their historical mean, unless something has fundamentally changed with the team in recent years. One could simply look to Coach Minasyan and his highly talented crop of young players as a counter argument.

Considering that Euro 2016 will be expanded to 24 teams, with France receiving automatic qualification as hosts, that leaves 23 places to be won. Based on this analysis of the FIFA ranking numbers, Armenia could be ranked 22 in the confederation of UEFA. This would place the nation on the cusp of greatness and could possibly see them punching that golden ticket to one of the greatest stages in soccer.

Sources

  1. Fédération Internationale de Football Association
    http://www.FIFA.com
  2. Eduard Ranghiuc’s Football Ranking Blog
    http://www.football-rankings.info/
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M.J. Graham

Michael Graham is The Armenian Weekly's soccer correspondent. Born and raised in Limerick, Ireland, Graham graduated from the University of Limerick with a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering. Passionate about soccer, Graham plays in and manages local adult soccer leagues in Massachusetts and is a holder of a U.S. Adult Amateur coaching license. Follow him on Twitter (@mjlgraham).

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