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Soccernomics: here's why Ireland dropped a place in FIFA's rankings

Despite qualification for the European Championships, the Boys in Green failed to make any inroads in the latest list. Economics expert Robbie Butler crunches the numbers.

Image: INPHO/James Crombie

THE PUBLICATION OF FIFA’s latest world rankings has left some people scratching their heads as to how Ireland could possibly have dropped one place, given our recent qualification to Euro 2012.

Like most things FIFA do, the rankings process is no different; it’s highly complicated.

To try and understand Ireland’s strange fall I decided to have a closer look at how the rankings are constructed.

Previous to investigating this, I believed it was a simply win-draw-lose allocation. The reality is quite different. The rankings don’t just take account of winning, drawing and losing games but the “match status”, “opposition strength”, “regional strength” and a team’s performance over the past four years.

For example, winning a game is worth three points, drawing one point and losing no points (this does not hold for games won by penalty shootout). This score is then multiplied by the match status. Friendlies are equal to one, major tournament qualifiers 2.5, European Championship finals games three and World Cup finals games four.

The resulting score is then multiplied by the ‘opposition strength’. This is calculated by subtracting the opposition’s current FIFA Ranking from 200 and subsequently dividing by 100. For, example if Ireland played a team ranked fifth in the world the opposition strength score would be (200 – 5)/100 = 1.95.

Geography

Once this number has been calculated, it must be adjusted for regional strength. Europe and South America have a regional strength score equal to one.

The North and Central America and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region has a score equal to 0.88. The regions of Asia and Africa have a score equal to 0.86, while Oceania is regarded as the weakest region, reporting a score of 0.85. The formula used to calculate this is the regional strength of the home team plus the away team divided by two.

Finally, all ranking tables constructed, take games played over the last four years into account. Games played within the last 12 months are multiplied by one. Games played between the last 12 and 24 months are multiplied by 0.5. Games played between 24 and 36 months previous are multiplied by 0.3. Finally, games played 36 to 48 months previous are multiplied by 0.2.

Let’s work an example.

Taking four Irish games over the past four years here’s how they add up. The four games, selected at random, are as follows. Ireland’s 2–1 win away to Georgia in a 2010 World Cup qualifier in September 2008. The 1–1 friendly draw with Nigeria in May 2009. The 1–0 win away to Armenia in a Euro 2012 qualifier and, finally, Ireland’s 0–0 draw in Moscow on 6 September 2011, again in a Euro 2012 qualifier.

Here’s how it works. Ireland beat Georgia 2–1. Three points are awarded for this. As this was a qualifier game, we multiply this by 2.5 giving us 7.5.

  • The Opposition Strength comes into play next. At the time of playing Georgia were ranked 86th in the world. So using the formula we must calculate the following (200 – 86)/100. This means Georgia had an opposition strength score of just 1.14. This is then multiplied by 7.5 giving a score, adjusted for the opposition, of 8.55.
  • Regional strength is next and is easy to calculate as both teams are European and carry one ranking point each. Hence, the score is one plus one, divided by two, which gives us a regional strength score of one. This is multiplied by 8.55 leaving the score unchanged.
  • Finally, because this game occurred between three and four years ago, our score of 8.55 is multiplied by 0.2 meaning the final value of Ireland’s win over Georgia is now worth 1.71 ranking points.

If we apply the same process to the Nigeria friendly (ranked 30th in the world at the time), Armenia game (ranked 96th) and our draw in Moscow (Russia were 13th in the world) the games are worth the following points:

  • Nigeria = 1 * 1 * 1.7 * 0.93 * 0.3 = 0.4743
  • Armenia = 3 * 2.5 * 1.04 * 1 * 0.5 = 3.9
  • Russia = 1 * 2.5 * 1.87 * 1 * 1 = 4.675

So, our draw in Russia is now worth more than the Armenia win. Following on from this, while drawing Estonia was excellent for our chances of qualification, it wasn’t good in the short run, for our ranking.

Bosnia-Herzegovina have jumped ahead of us because they drew with the highly ranked Portugal in their first play-off leg. Had Ireland beaten Estonia in the Aviva this would not be the case.

The key is this though. We now have a great chance of scoring more ranking points. The reward for drawing and winning Euro finals matches is much higher. Defeats will give us no points, so taking something from games is a must, if not for qualification, for future seeding.

Talk about complicated!

Robbie Butler, an Economics lecturer at University College Cork, has written extensively on soccer economics. Check out some that here.

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Robbie Butler

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