Friday, 6 December 2013

Fifa damages World Cup with seedings own goal

The competitive fabric of the tournament has been torn before a ball is kicked in Brazil as a result of the governing body's decision to use its ranking system to sort the seeds
By Peter Staunton

These are the top seven teams in the world according to the Fifa Ranking - Spain, Germany, Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, Uruguay and Switzerland. While there can be little argument about the first three, most football fans would agree that the governing body has overlooked key nations in its seedings. Brazil are included as hosts.

Despite the ranking system being widely discredited, with observers lobbing up any aberrations to illustrate its flaws, it nonetheless dictated the order of groups for the 2014 World Cup. It is integral to a tournament's integrity and allure that the strongest teams are kept apart in the early stages. So, on that basic count, the Fifa ranking has failed us.

Fifa's compulsion to make its rankings relevant has brought us to this stage. The World Cup draw has been hindered by it and, as a consequence, the sporting integrity of the competition itself weakened.

Using the October edition of the Fifa Ranking to sort out the World Cup seeds was always counter-intuitive. We know who the best teams in the world are and, to put bluntly, Switzerland are not one of them. "In general, I find that the world ranking is difficult to understand, for example, Switzerland in seventh ahead of the Italians," Germany coach Joachim Low told Sportal in October.

Switzerland's 14-match unbeaten run ahead of the seeding announcement was indeed commendable and their streak brought on a steady supply of ranking points. Consider, however, that the Swiss played only eight times in 2013, including two friendlies, and their high October rank becomes more explicable. They preserved their points-gained-per-year average, which is crucial to determining the Fifa ranking.
The Elo Rating is a ranking system adapted to football from chess. It takes into consideration whether a team was home or away, goal difference and also the expected result based on the teams' respective ranking.

Elo rewards teams with a points-exchange system. If a team performs better than expected then it pinches the points offered by the opponents in any given match.

As well as ranking teams according to its rating system, Elo also acts as a predictor model for future matches.

The accuracy of the Fifa ranking pales in comparison to the Elo Rating - now the most credible alternative.

Fifa already uses a method derived from the Elo Rating for the Women's World Ranking.

Significantly, both Italy and the Netherlands would have been among the top seeds for the World Cup had the Elo Rating from October been used instead.

"Elo is a much better alternative," says Roberto Cassini, author of sports trading blog Green All Over.

"With it being used in the women's game already, there is no reason why they shouldn't be used for the men's game.

"Ratings can be updated after each match, the formula can account for home advantage and margin of victory, and they are quicker to respond to a run of strong (or weak) form."

Italy, on the other hand, played 15 matches in 2013 which counted towards the World Cup seeding programme - delivering a points-gained average beneath the Swiss.

Having Switzerland in the top pot is like handing out a Champions League place to Southampton on the basis that they started the English Premier League season brilliantly. By the time the end of the season rolls around, the big teams will be back on top.

The least we can expect from a Fifa World Cup draw is that the top countries in the world have the opportunity to go through to the knockout rounds in order to safeguard the integrity of the world's most-loved sporting event.

Switzerland have already dropped out of the top eight, after one month among the elite, but that will not mean they lose their rank. Fair enough, Fifa used the October ranking to ensure that teams playing competitive matches in November, those in the play-offs, were not afforded an additional advantage. But there is a fundamental sickness infesting the entire process.

No European team qualified faster for the World Cup than the Netherlands and Italy. The Dutch were finalists in South Africa in 2010 and Italy finished runners-up to Spain at Euro 2012.

The Netherlands dropped two points in the qualification phase, in all winning 26 of their last 28 qualification matches. They only played six qualification games in 2013; their points-gained average, therefore, was 527.71. Louis Van Gaal was mystified when the World Cup seeds were announced. "Oranje were sixth at the time I started, now we're eighth, while no official matches have been lost," he told AD. "This makes me wonder to what extent it is a real reflection."

The Italians have not lost a qualifier of any kind for almost seven years. These are the elite teams. When the time comes, it will be Italy and the Netherlands bound for the semi-finals and not Switzerland. Would anybody really back the Swiss, even taking into account how well they've done under Ottmar Hitzfeld and with their emerging talents, in a knockout match against the Oranje or Italy?

Yes, Italy and the Netherlands should know better. Both have been penalised, in a sense, for matches against teams of miniscule ranking importance, San Marino and Indonesia respectively. Holland have won only three of their last nine friendlies, meaning their Fifa ranking is weighed down by those adverse results. Those wins, too, came against Northern Ireland, Indonesia and China, hardly worthwhile for meaningful ranking points.

These anomalies skew the groups for the World Cup and this simply should not be the case. There is now the possibility of the likes of Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, England and France ending up in a group with the other superpowers like Spain, Germany, Argentina and Brazil.

The good teams should not be departing in the group stage due to complications in the layout of the group; bad form is another thing altogether. In order to maximise the potential of its flagship tournament, Fifa should have ensured it did not happen. An alternative ratings system is outlined above.

It does not take much to outwit Fifa's algorithm nor Fifa itself. -----------------

Most of the seeded teams will be knocked out in the first round...

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