Seeds of Discontent

A few eyebrows have been raised today at the announcement of the seeds for the World Cup draw in December (at least, the preliminary seeds : Uruguay’s place is still to be confirmed as they have a playoff against Jordan.

The seeds were: Brazil (as hosts), Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Switzerland and either the Netherlands or Uruguay. Of particular note are Colombia, Belgium, and Switzerland: Colombia haven’t been at a World Cup since 1998, Belgium since 2002, and Switzerland, despite making it to South Africa, aren’t well known for setting the world on fire. Meanwhile, Italy, the Netherlands (potentially) and England miss out. All three qualified with unbeaten records, (with just one draw in ten games in the Netherlands’ case) so how come this has happened?

The short answer is: they used the FIFA World Rankings. 

The long answer follows.

First of all, I’ve done you a disservice, because I’ve already sown the seeds of bias into your mind. The problem is the “aura factor” (a term I’ve just made up, but bear with me)- the factor that says that it’s ok to lose against Brazil or that says the World Cup wouldn’t be complete without the Dutch (as it was in 2002). We notice the teams like the Netherlands and Spain, and aren’t surprised when they do well. If they went on a run of bad results and remained seeded, nobody would bat an eyelid. Similarly, if the Swiss went on a good run and remained outside the top ten, few would notice. 

We think certain teams should be at the top because that’s what perceived wisdom says, and get uncomfortable when our worldview is challenged. Luckily, the FIFA World Rankings have no favourites. Indeed, they are blind to many things:

Home advantage, margin of victory, number of goals and away goals are not considered. 

Taken into consideration are the result, the context of the game (was it a friendly, or a World Cup game?), the relative strength of the opposition (calculated based on the difference between the two FIFA World rankings in the month in question), where the teams are from (Europe and South America are highest, Oceania the lowest), and how long ago the match was played (only the last four years are considered- matches 4 years ago are worth a fifth as much as one played yesterday). 

If Spain beat San Marino, they’ll get a lot less points than if it was the other way round (it’s worth noting that losing a game gets you absolutely nothing- losing to Brazil in the World Cup Final is the same as losing to Andorra on a wet night in February).

A quick browse of the teams’ results suggests that what has happened is that Switzerland have benefited from a narrow qualifying group: the teams in their group have been closer to them (or higher than them) in the rankings, meaning that they gain more ranking points than the Netherlands will have done. Of course, it should be noted that they have also gone on a long unbeaten run, including a victory against “mighty” Brazil (which the rankings just see as the team that happens to be in 8th place in the rankings). The Netherlands, meanwhile, have had largely routine victories against teams ranked quite a bit below them.

Speaking of Brazil, their tumble down the rankings to 11th is mostly due to the fact they haven’t played many competitive games in the last 4 years, mostly friendlies against weaker opposition. 

So essentially, the moral of the story is that if you want a good ranking, play and beat teams about the same level as you the year before the World Cup. And accept that sometimes, you might be biassed. 

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