The middle of the summer always brings about the “silly season”, that time of year when, with parliament sunning itself on beaches or relaxing on their country estates, news editors find themselves having to resort to a different angle in their reporting of the news. This extends to the sports pages as well, particularly in years with an odd number when there is no distraction in the form of a World Cup finals or a European Championship finals. So it is that, with most of the press choosing to ignore or patronise the European Under-21 Championships and the Women’s World Cup, we are left with transfer rumours of a decidedly reheated nature (is there anything about the Cesc Fabregas story that wasn’t being discussed six months ago or this time last year?) and, this summer, arguably the silliest story of the lot. England are up to fourth place in the FIFA World Rankings.
FIFA’s equivalent of the Billboard Top 100 has, like the FA’s Respect Campaign or David James’ hairstyles, long been a source of ridicule and bafflement amongst most supporters and those in the media. The inclusion of England at fourth place in the list released today, however, takes the biscuit as a source for our amusement. They sit above Italy, Argentina and, most amusingly of all, Brazil. Although Brazil are in something of a state of disarray by their own very high standards at the moment, they will almost certainly reclaim the spot above England with their involvement in the forthcoming Copa America, in Argentina. But still. England, this England – almost any England team in the last twenty years, to be frank – the fourth best team in the world. One can only imagine the response of the statisticians that work these things out as it started to become apparent.
There are other anomalies in the list – Norway in eleventh place, for example, may cause some to raise their eyebrows – but none raise guffaws quite like England’s statistical hyper-inflation. This, one can only reasonably surmise, is exactly what happens when numbers are fed into a machine that has never watched a game of football. The current England team, if we are to pluck numbers from the air (which, for this example, we are), isn’t amongst the best ten in the world at the moment, and may not even make the top twenty. And the reaction has been very telling. There has, of course, been no-one in England expressing disappointment at this position being too low or its rightful position, and there has been a distinct tone of low comedy in the air in most online discussions of it.
FIFA claims that the aim of their rankings is to combine “transparency and simplicity” with “the reality of world football”. The method of calculation doesn’t obviously cover “transparency and simplicity”, and the results themselves could hardly be representative of, in the perception of almost everybody that watches the game, “the reality of world football”. As such, FIFA’s aims have provided a unique double-whammy of failure. It isn’t, however, that they don’t have any relevance. These rankings are not merely decorative – FIFA used them to work out seeds for the Qualifying Stages of the 2010 World Cup finals in the CAF, CONCACAF and UEFA confederations, and they are used as part of the calculations to determine the seeding of other competitions as well. For all that we laugh about it, were England to somehow cling onto such a lofty position, it could significantly benefit them in terms of seeding for the 2014 World Cup finals.
Brazil haven’t played in the Copa America yet this year, but they haven’t been helped in slipping behind England in terms of their recent opponents. A team doesn’t lose points for losses, so a team will get an advantage if they play more matches than their competitors, especially if they’re competitive matches. Brazil have played eight matches since last summer’s World Cup finals, but all of them were friendly matches and they lost twice . In the same time-frame, England have played nine matches, five of which were European Championship qualifiers, which is no small part of the reason why they have moved above Brazil in the rankings.
There are, however, further tweaks that FIFA could offer. For example, World Cup finals matches should be weighted much more heavily towards success in the finals. Under the current calculation, winning two World Cup qualifying matches count for more than the World Cup Final itself. This is clearly unsatisfactory. Also, the allowance given for a team’s confederation should a scrapped. It only serves to the detriment of some federations and teams should only be judged on who they play and their results against them. It seems highly likely, though, that whatever calculation FIFA tries, they will always get their listings wrong, somehow or other. Spain is an easy call in first place, for example, and it would taken a calculation requiring the phrase “Where L = the length of a piece of string” to get it wrong. That the other positions are so debatable, however, is one of the delights of this infinitely malleable game of ours and, with a lateral thinking, could be the biggest reason for FIFA releasing them in the first place. It gets the world talking about international teams during a quiet period for many of them, after all.
Perhaps in the offices of Wembley Stadium, David Bernstein and Sir Dave Richards raised glasses and offered themselves a toast for a good twelve months’ work, however unlikely this may seem. Perhaps John Terry and Frank Lampard did the same. That we should even have to make the vaguest of mentions of how ill-deserved that would both on and off the pitch seems completely superfluous, but there it is. Perhaps they are raising a glass tonight. Moreover, perhaps England supporters should raise a glass to it tonight. It seems difficult to believe that there will be much more to celebrate over the next few years, at least.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.