Are Switzerland really better than Italy? FIFA’s insane ranking system explained

The Rio Report

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When FIFA's latest official world rankings were released on Thursday, and there was widespread amazement that Italy got bumped out of the top seven by Switzerland - who beat the Azzurri to the final seeded berth in December's draw for Brazil 2014.

We're talking about a team who won the World Cup in 2006, and more to the point a side good enough to get to the final of the European Championships just 15 months ago.

Since then, the Italians have enjoyed an unbeaten qualifying campaign to make it to the World Cup with two games to spare.

Switzerland, by contrast, didn't even qualify for Euro 2012 - and while they also enjoyed an unbeaten qualifying campaign, they did so in a group so weak that Iceland made it into the play-off spot. On their way to that top spot, they were held 0-0 by Cyprus.

Italy's group, by contrast, included respected teams such as Denmark and the Czech Republic, both of whom were ranked higher than any of the other sides in Switzerland's group.

Despite all that Switzerland somehow picked up enough points to leap into the top seven of the rankings and therefore grab a seeding spot for the World Cup. This means that they are spared a potential group stage draw that would pit them against Brazil (the hosts, who are seeded despite being outside the top 10), Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium or Uruguay (assuming that the latter beat Jordan in their play-off).

Surely a team with the calibre, and the recent success, of Italy must be worthy of one of those spots at the expense of the Swiss? FIFA's rankings say it ain't so, however.

How it works

The formula is relatively simple, in theory: each team is awarded three points for a win. Those three points are then multiplied according to these formulas:

- Importance of the match (World Cup games 4.0, Continental/Confederations Cup such as the Euros 3.0, Qualifiers 2.5, Friendlies 1.0)

- Strength of the opposing team (200 minus the team's ranking at the time of the game, so Spain's multiplier is 199, while 100th ranked Georgia's is 100). There's a minimum 50 in this category, even if you're playing 207th-ranked San Marino.

- Strength of the Confederation (Europe or South America 1.00, North/Central America 0.88, Asia or Africa 0.86, Oceania 0.85)

In other words, if England beat top-ranked Spain in a World Cup match, they'll get three for the win, multiplied by four for the match importance, multiplied by 199 for the opposition, multiplied by one for the Confederation). That's 3x4x199x1=2,388. England's game against Poland, by contrast, landed them 1012.5 points (3x2.5x135x1).

All your points per match are averaged out for each calendar are year, and average results from the past four years are tallied up, with results longer ago counting less. Your score is then your average points this year plus 50% of your average points from the previous year, plus 30% of your average points from two years ago, plus 20% of your average points from three years ago.

Thus England have 1080: that's their average of 485 points a year in 2013, plus 310 from 2012 (when they averaged 620), plus 147 from 2011 (when they averaged 491) plus 137 from 2010 (when they averaged 686).

A little complicated, sure, but it seems fair enough. Until you start digging deeper, and you see that Switzerland, ranked seventh, have a ranking of 1,138, while Italy and Netherlands both have 1,136.

If you think that seems like a tiny margin dividing the teams, you'd be right. And that's brought up all sorts of anomalies.

Italy did too well, too quickly, in World Cup qualifying

The Italians won six of their first eight matches in qualifying for the World Cup, and in a tough-fought group that was enough for them to book a place in Brazil with two matches to spare. With that in mind, they used the final two matches - against Denmark and Armenia - to try out different players and tactics, not particularly caring what happened.

They didn't even have Gianluigi Buffon in goal against Armenia, for example, with Federico Marchetti instead getting only his second cap in a World Cup qualifying match. Marchetti, lest you forget, is the man who conceded four goals from just five shots against him at the 2010 World Cup when Buffon was injured.

The result of that tinkering was draws against Denmark and Armenia. A win against either side would have boosted Italy's points average for 2013 by around 50 points, which would have left them ranked fourth in the world instead of eighth.

Is that sensible-sounding system still looking fair to you?

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Switzerland rewarded for being flat-track bullies

Italy's results in those last few matches are only one part of the equation. What about Switzerland?

The Swiss were nowhere near the top eight of the rankings a few weeks back, but won their last three qualifiers in a row - against Norway, Albania and Slovenia - to give themselves a huge boost. A nil-nil draw against Cyprus and a 4-4 draw against Iceland were their only slip-ups in the last 18 months, and since then they've been unbeaten in 14 matches.

Their qualifying matches, however, were all against teams ranked outside the world's top 30. As you may have spotted with the rankings system, the multipliers are such that there's very little difference, for example, between playing top-ranked Spain and 10th-ranked England: you'd get 2,388 to beat Spain at a World Cup, but 2,268 to beat England. Once you divide that 120-point difference by the dozen or so matches (at least) that most teams might have played in a given year, you'll see it's only 10 points here or there on the final ranking points.

Thus, Switzerland's easy World Cup qualifying group helped them immeasurably. They collected 1,162 points for beating Albania, while Italy picked up a relatively few extra (1,298) for beating a far, far tougher Czech Republic team this year.

Everyone wants to play Italy in friendlies - and it's hurt them

High-profile friendlies against the sexiest teams in world football are great for the FA's bank balance - but usually bad news for the team's ranking. Friendlies aren't taken seriously, lead to freak results, and hammer your multiplier.

Switerzland have played only two friendlies this year: one against Greece (a 0-0 draw) and the other against Brazil, which they won 1-0. That was impressive, in fairness.

Italy, by contrast, have played five. In four of those games they earned draws with the Netherlands and Brazil, hammered San Marino, and lost to Argentina. As you can see from the formula, even a win in a friendly against Spain will earn you under 600 points, which is roughly the same as winning a qualifier against Luxembourg.

The fifth of those friendlies was Italy's charity match against Haiti, in which they played a young and inexperienced side, switched off while 2-0 up with five minutes left and conceded two late goals (one from the spot) to draw 2-2. Huge amounts of money were raised for earthquake relief and the fans went home happy - but Italy's ranking average took a pounding as they picked up just over 100 points for a draw with the 80th-best team in the world.

Not only is that bad itself, but each friendly they play means that the relative effect of their big-points wins in qualifying is lessened. By playing three extra friendlies, each of Italy's qualifying wins is diluted since average points per match are averaged out: you pick up 100 points against Haiti, but you're now dividing your sum total of points for the year by 16 instead of 15.

The same goes for the Confederations Cup. Italy picked up some nice points by beating Mexico and Japan, but had their averages pounded by losing to Brazil and Spain - neither of which was exactly a disgrace. All they basically did was increase the number of games that their overall points tally has to be divided by, though they did get some credit for only losing on penalties to Spain.

With all that taken into account, Italy have played 16 matches in 2013, compared to Switzerland's eight. If you crunch all the numbers, dividing down and so on, each of the Swiss's World Cup qualifying wins will each have boosted their final ranking tally score by about 120 points, while each of Italy's qualifying wins will only have added around 60 to their score.

And remember, the ranking table has just two points between the sides.

The answer?

The easiest way, by far, for teams to be ranked would be by a panel of humans. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of international football can say instinctively that a team that finished second in one of the world's toughest tournaments just 15 months ago is better than one which failed to qualify for that tournament.

But where do you draw the line? It seems okay that talent-rich Belgium, who soared through qualifying, should be ranked ahead of the Dutch or English, but should they be above or below Colombia? That's why boiling games down into rankings points is a good idea.

There will always be problems, with this. What do you do about defeats, for example? At the moment losing 3-2 to Spain in extra time at a World Cup match is worth 0 points, while needing a late penalty to beat Turks and Caicos Islands in a friendly is worth 132 points.

But the biggest flaws in the current system are self-evidently to do with the points available in friendlies, and the score for the strength of your opponent.

Brazil's case shows this perfectly. They are ranked an insanely-low 11th, simply because their automatic qualification as World Cup hosts mean they don't have the same number of chances to score points.

We're using the word 'insane' advisedly: they have won 11 of their last 12 matches (the blip against Switzerland being their only defeat). Their scalps in that run include Spain, France, Mexico, Italy, Uruguay and Portugal, yet they're not in the top 10 in the world.

Crazy? Absolutely. But not quite as crazy as Switzerland being seeded ahead of Italy for the World Cup next year.

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