Thursday, 6 November 2014

FIFA Rankings – How much notice should we take?

FIFA Rankings – How much notice should we take?

Sorry there has been no blog for a while. My only excuse is that it has been a very busy period. In the last few months we have played a number of international matches, had a Centenary Dinner, submitted a funding application to LCSD, reviewed Project Phoenix with the Football Task Force, held a FIFA workshop on facility development, updated the Strategic Plan, started the Premier League not to mention many managerial tasks such as the annual Appraisal process, an internal risk assessment etc. I’m not asking for sympathy, I have an enjoyable and challenging job, it’s just that my blog hasn’t got to the top of my ‘to do’ list, until now that is. I will try and do better from now on.



FIFA Rankings
A recent article in the SCMP had the following headline; “Lift your game to justify $100m-plus funding Hong Kong Soccer told”. It went on to state that “the men’s soccer side must improve their world rankings or else the financial lifeline may close”. Firstly I would like to point out that this statement and the inference are both incorrect.

As mentioned above we have been reviewing Project Phoenix with the Government and looking ahead to the delivery of the new Strategic Plan, Aiming High – Together. This has been a very positive process. The truth is that the Government’s Football Task Force recognizes the good work that is being done by the HKFA, and that further progress can be made with additional investment based on the new Strategic Plan (which incidentally the AFC has described as ‘logical, comprehensive and coherent’). Government funding has been agreed but I cannot reveal the actual amount until it has been officially announced. Suffice to say it is more than we have been receiving under the Project Phoenix banner and for a longer period of time (5 years not 3). This is good news for football and demonstrates a solid relationship between the HKFA and the Government and not a ‘carrot and stick’ approach as implied in the SCMP article. Still I suppose as the saying goes….never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

For the avoidance of doubt, throughout the process of negotiating future funding we have never been told to ‘lift our game’ or that we needed to ‘rise up the rankings’ or that ‘the pipeline could be closed’ based on rankings. So for the record, the funding is NOT linked to the performance of the representative team as set out in the FIFA ranking. I hope that point is now abundantly clear. Future funding will be subject to a formal agreement between the HKFA and the Government and as you would expect there are a number of key performance indicators related to the delivery of the strategy that will be regularly reviewed. We accept and agree that the use of public money must be subject to scrutiny. We also understand that funding might be reduced if we do not deliver. However for very good reasons the FIFA rankings are not Performance Indicators within the agreement, they are referred to as ‘benchmarks’ and targets only. This is because it is made clear in the strategic plan that improvement in the rankings is dependent upon many things that are outside of the control of the HKFA, including the provision of better and additional pitches, the investment made by other countries etc.

It is also because, bizarre as it sounds, the FIFA rankings are not actually a very reliable indicator of performance. This may sound like an excuse, so let me explain how the ranking system works. Bear with me, it’s quite complicated.

A team’s total number of points is calculated over a four-year period and is determined by adding:
  • The average number of points gained from matches during the past 12 months; and
  • 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.

Their current values are as follows: CONMEBOL 1.00. UEFA 0.99. AFC/CAF/OFC/CONCACAF 0.85



Hong Kong’s current ranking is 163 because we have 109 points based on the above scoring criteria and the results of matches over the last four years. This is set out below:

0.2 time frame



17-Nov-2010
 

PAR

0

Friendly

09-Feb-2011

MAS

0

Friendly

03-Jun-2011

MAS

49.02

Friendly

23-Jul-2011

KSA

0

FIFA World Cup Qualifier

28-Jul-2011

KSA

0

FIFA World Cup Qualifier

30-Sep-2011

PHI

43

Friendly

02-Oct-2011

MAC

129

Friendly

04-Oct-2011

TPE

129

Friendly

350.02 points from 8 matches, an average of 43.7525, multiplied by 0.2 = 8.7505

0.3 time frame



29-Feb-2012

TPE

129

Friendly

01-Jun-2012

SIN

129

Friendly

10-Jun-2012

VIE

0

Friendly

15-Aug-2012

SIN

0

Friendly

16-Oct-2012

MAS

0

Friendly

258 points, 5 games, 51.6 average, multiplied by 0.3 = 15.48

0.5 time frame



14-Nov-2012

MAS

43

Friendly

01-Dec-2012

GUM

129

Friendly

03-Dec-2012

AUS

0

Friendly

07-Dec-2012

TPE

129

Friendly

09-Dec-2012

PRK

0

Friendly

06-Feb-2013

UZB

310

Continental Qualifier

22-Mar-2013

VIE

457.95

Continental Qualifier

04-Jun-2013

PHI

0

Friendly

10-Sep-2013

SIN

129

Friendly

15-Oct-2013

UAE

0

Continental Qualifier

1197.55 points, 10 games, 119.755 average, multiplied by 0.5 = 59.8775

1.0 time frame



15-Nov-2013

UAE

0

Continental Qualifier

19-Nov-2013

UZB

0

Continental Qualifier

05-Mar-2014

VIE

0

Continental Qualifier

06-Sep-2014

VIE

0

Friendly

09-Sep-2014

SIN

42.5

Friendly

10-Oct-2014

SIN

130.05

Friendly

14-Oct-2014

ARG

0

Friendly

172.55 points, 7 games, 24.65 average, multiplied by 1 = 24.65
 
Adding it up: 8.7505 + 15.48 + 59.8775 + 24.65 = 108.758, rounded up to 109.

Discussion

After the SCMP article was published I received an email from a gentleman called Eduard Ranghiuc (a Romanian computer programmer) who specializes in advising Football Associations on how to develop strategies to increase their FIFA rankings. He provided some of the information above, so thank you Eduard. You can check him out here;  http://www.football-rankings.info/2014/08/signed-on-as-fifa-ranking-consultant.html The mere fact that there is a market for this type of service illustrates that the FIFA rankings are as much about mathematics as they are about how good you are at football. I exchanged a number of emails with Eduard and he seems like a very genuine and interesting guy. I am sure he is good at what he does and I’m sure if we followed his advice our ranking would improve.

For example, he told me that we should not have played friendly matches recently against Singapore and Argentina and that instead we should have played two games against Aruba. They are currently ranked 129 and two wins against them would have increased our 1.0 timeframe average from 24.65 to 57.8. As a result our points would have risen from 109 to 142 and we would have improved 10 places in the rankings. As easy as that! My point is that as a Football Association we have to take into account many factors when deciding how many matches to play and against which teams. I am not convinced that Aruba would have been a good choice for our Centenary match!

According to Eduard the top 10 teams to play against to improve our rankings would have been:
 
Aruba
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Antigua and Barbuda
St. Lucia
Dominican Republic
St. Kitts and Nevis
Sierra Leone
Botswana
Luxembourg
Afghanistan

Equally I’m not convinced (given what is happening in West Africa right now) that our players would have been too keen to play against Sierra Leone.

Of course it is all hypothetical and if we had beaten Argentina our ranking would have gone up to 142!

I can understand why some people will look at the rankings and use them to judge our progress. Hopefully the examples above will demonstrate why they should be viewed with caution. There are some other factors to bear in mind too.
  • The rankings take into account matches played four years ago. In that time Project Phoenix has come and gone. I understand why FIFA want to look this far back because it is about consistency but should we be judged partially on what happened before our project started? 
  • The number of points you get for playing in a competitive tournament are worth a lot more than points earned in friendlies, that is understandable and yet it is outside our control as to when competitive tournaments come around and who we are drawn against. This means that to some extent the ranking position becomes cyclical and based on the luck of the draw.
  • I’ve always found it strange that the points gained take no notice of whether the match is home or away. It’s already a complicated formula so I assume FIFA decided not to bother with that important variable.
  • Because the rankings are based on the average number of points, a good strategy to improving your ranking would be to play a relatively few number of matches against teams you know you can beat (and get them to come to your place) and then rest on your laurels. However that strategy means fewer opportunities for players to gain experience, not to mention fewer opportunities for fans the media and sponsors. It also means that you would never pit yourself against stronger opponents.
  • We recently played a competitive home match against Uzbekistan. After 80 minutes the score was 0-0. We ended up losing that match and therefore got no points and our average suffered too. Had we held out for another 10 minutes we would have got 310 points and our ranking would have risen by 8 places. You are not telling me that that 10 minutes of football made us a better or worse team and yet that is what the rankings would have said.
  • You get more points playing against teams from different Confederations. As a result of the failure of any of the Asian teams to win at the recent World Cup the difference is due to increase for countries in Asia. Furthermore, for financial reasons it is not always easy to play matches against teams from other continents and so again for no fault of our own, it will be more difficult in the future for us to gain ranking points.

It all goes to show that the rankings should not be taken too literally because there are so many factors at play. Eduard sent me a link which illustrates ‘how to play the FIFA rankings game’.
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25134584 or to put it another way, the FIFA rankings only ‘broadly’ reflect how good you are. As the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics.


So it is possible to adopt a strategy where the FIFA rankings are a priority but to me that could conflict with football development objectives. At our stage in the development cycle, we want to play matches to enable our players to gain experience of international football. We want the flexibility to ‘blood’ new young players or to try new styles and systems. We want to improve by playing against better teams, like Argentina. If we obsess about the FIFA rankings our strategy would be completely different. I like to think that our strategy is more enlightened than simply chasing ranking points. Over time if we use the new investment wisely to develop better players and give them opportunities to play, the quality of our football will improve. Eventually, this will be reflected in the rankings because we will qualify for tournament finals where the accumulation of points is exponential. The important point is that this won’t happen overnight and if money was taken away from us simply based on rankings it would be counterproductive. Once football in Hong Kong is more mature, we might want to review our strategy regarding the FIFA rankings.

Conclusion

I hope I have demonstrated why the FIFA Rankings should be seen as a target of progress and not a stick with which to beat the HKFA. If we wanted to we could have a strategy that was solely based on attaining a higher ranking. Indeed for some countries this is the priority. They will choose opponents that give them the best chance of gaining ranking points. But would we have been thanked for playing our Centenary match against Aruba? In playing against Argentina, we lost one ranking position rather than potentially gaining 10. Would it be fair to reduce our funding because of this? And would it be reasonable to reduce our funding in March 2015 when the value of the points secured against Vietnam two years previously will diminish? Personally I don’t think so. We all want to see Hong Kong’s position change for the better and I am confident that over time it will, but in the short term we should not get fixated with the FIFA rankings but rather we should see them for what they are, a benchmark of relative quality.

Thankfully (and contrary to the assumption of the SCMP), the Government appreciates that the ranking system is somewhat arbitrary and has not included the FIFA ranking as a performance indicator that could result in financial penalty if not attained. I, like them am content that we will be judged on more measurable, objective and more meaningful targets such as the number of people playing football, the effectiveness of grass roots football programmes, the number of qualified coaches and referees, the number of spectators at Premier League fixtures, the amount of sponsorship generated etc.

Mark Sutcliffe November 2014  

Note: The Chinese version will be released soon

 

 

7 comments:

  1. I forgot to mention in the above blog that some time ago we wrote a programme ourselves based on the FIFA ranking methodology to calculate how many ranking points we would get from any match against any opponent in any given situation. We did this not to determine who to play to maximise ranking points but rather to create a fair method to calculate player bonuses. Our system is based on so many HK$ per point.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Mark,
    I have found FIFA rankings to be unreliable and its use arbitrary, i.e., its use in World Cup group seedings.

    I recommend taking a hard look at Elo ratings: http://www.eloratings.net/system.html
    HK is ranked 30th in the AFC and 164th overall.

    Regards,
    -David

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi David,
    I have looked at that model and I agree it is probably more accurate than the FIFA model in that it takes in more variables. It is always difficult to relate the performance of a sport perfectly to a mathematical and theoretical 'tool' hence the need to exercise caution when using them. They definitely should not be used to determine whether or not a Government chooses to financially support a sport because there are much more objective methods of evaluating performance.
    Thanks for your comment. Mark

    ReplyDelete
  4. I would like to make another point. The FIFA rankings won't take into account the recent Asian Games even though it took place during FIFA match-day windows. This is because it is a predominantly U23 competition (although some 23+ players are allowed). In the group stages Hong Kong drew with Uzbekistan (ranked 58), beat Afghanistan (ranked 135) and beat Bangladesh (ranked 181). These results would have significantly improved our points and world ranking and yet won't be taken into account. This is another reason why the FIFA rankings should be used as a benchmark and not a definitive indicator. We have to look at results as a whole across all of our teams.
    Mark

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yet another update! Our boys U11 and U13 Academy teams have just come back from a successful HK - Guangdong - Macau youth exchange programme. The U13 team were the champions following a 2-0 win against Guangdong and a 5-0 win against Macau. The U11 team were runners up losing on penalties after a 0-0 match against Guangdong and following a 5-0 win against Macau. To me this is a further sign of progress. In the future these boys will represent Hong Kong Senior team and will have been through a much more structured programme than our current players. We need to keep a sense of perspective and take a long term view. Anybody who knows anything about football development knows that you can't transform a player in a matter of a few short years.
    Mark

    ReplyDelete
  6. Please, will you really post some more things about the same issue; I am actually a great fan of your blog...
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