Wednesday, June 22, 2016

FIFA Rankings, Politics and Gaming the System

On June 24, the Confederation for African Football (CAF) will conduct its draws for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers in Africa. We know that the draws depend on the seeding of teams based largely on FIFA's Ranking. Of course, it is a system that put Nigeria outside the Top 10 teams in Africa barely a few weeks ago. Fortunately, Nigeria was placed among the second set of seeded teams based on its performance in its last two international friendlies.

Of course, there are many who detest FIFA's Ranking system and for very good reasons. When you have a ranking system that confuses you more than it helps in understanding the relative strength of teams, then you should really worry. FIFA's Ranking system, modified several times over the years, remains a confusing system.

Nevertheless, it is a system that will not go away any time soon. Thus, you either learn how to cope with it and face its perils. That is the fact about international football today.

In this piece, we take a look at FIFA's Ranking system in order to identify problems with some of its logic. Importantly, we also note the geopolitics that shroud the system. Because my interest revolves around its impact on Nigeria, I look at how Nigeria's historical ranking by FIFA is related to coaching performance in recent times. The final part of this piece is to muse about what Nigeria may do in order to take advantage of the ranking system. 

The Baffling (Makes you Puke?)
The most baffling issue, for me, is why a system designed to rank national teams has to depend on factors beyond national team performance. This is, perhaps, the biggest "logic" question about FIFA's system. Presently, FIFA's system assigns weights to confederations. It is a calculation based on prior performance of a collection of national teams from particular continents or confederations. But is this necessary? My answer is "No." It makes little sense.

The system is NOT designed to rank confederations! It is designed to rank national teams. Thus, it makes little sense to add weights for performance of a confederation. By assigning weights to confederations, distortions are introduced in the system. For instance, does it make sense for a country playing Luxembourg to receive a higher score because Luxembourg is in Europe and a lower score for playing against Congo DR because the latter is in Africa? While one can understand the superior strength of UEFA teams like Germany, Italy, and Spain one cannot understand why teams like Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Andorra should be assigned greater strength compared to countries like Mexico, Ivory Coast, and Algeria.

The only interpretation for the above is the continuation of geopolitics that has plagued FIFA since the beginning of the 20th century. In essence, lets build and continue advantages for all of Europe's teams without regard to the rest of the world. It is similar to the thinking behind the absurd and imbalanced allocation of World Cup berths.

But then, even this weighting of confederations has been calculated questionably by FIFA. See the attempt to increase weights for UEFA and another error in calculating weights for the Asian Federation found by a diligent blogger and eventually corrected by FIFA. Are these unintentional? Perhaps. But it is hardly convincing when you consider that the weights were, in the first place, designed to help UEFA and CONMEBOL teams that already have advantages based on individual team ranks.  

More baffling, is that FIFA has taken away from its rankings the factors that make sense. For example, the recognition of the difficulty of playing away from home has been taken away from the formula. Yet, it is more logical to include it in the ranking formula than it is to include confederation weights. Why? Most disadvantaged countries (Those outside of UEFA) often have to play their international friendlies away from home because of financial calculations. Take a look at the last international friendlies between UEFA countries and non-UEFA countries to understand the issues here.

How Nigeria has Ranked Under Recent Coaches
Nevertheless, I already stated that "you either learn how to cope with it and face its perils." This brings us to reviewing Nigeria's recent rankings using the FIFA system. Here, we track the tenure of Nigerian coaches since 2008. The figure below shows where Nigeria has ranked during the tenures of Shuaibu Amodu (April 2009 and February 2010), Lars Lagerback (November 2010), Samson Siasia (November 2011), Stephen Keshi (November 2012, July 2013, July 2014, and July 2015), and Sunday Oliseh (May 2016).

Because FIFA rankings are affected largely (50%) by a team's performance in the last 12 months, we have tried to measure a coach's 12 months of tenure. For Keshi, we are able to take four such measures because of his longevity. For Lagerback, his measure accounts for 10 months period only because of his short tenure. But that 10 months also denote his close to 50% impact on the country's ranking assigned to him.

By using this measure, the effect of previous tenures on an account of a particular Coach's tenure is reduced by at least 50%. Thus, this measure is a rough but probable measure of accuracy on the impact of a coach's tenure on Nigeria's ranking. Of course, 100% accuracy can only be achieved if a Nigerian coach had a tenure of four years (period that covers impact on any rank assigned by the FIFA system). We know that has not happened for quite a long time! Thus, we settle for a high percentage of a coach's impact on the rank.

During the period of measurement, I note that Shuaibu Amodu produced the largest positive ranking effect for Nigeria moving the country from its No. 30 rank one year into his appointment to a rank of No. 15 in the world by the time he was replaced with Lagerback. The worst effect is the No. 67 rank under Coach Sunday Oliseh. However, note that by our measure this rank while due largely to performance under Oliseh's tenure is also partly affected (at least 50%) by the previous coach's tenure.

What Nigeria Should do 
With the data shown above, it is clear that Nigeria must strive to maintain a reasonable rank in order to receive the best seed at an event such as the draws that take place on June 24. Obviously, our current rank in the high 50s (9th in Africa) led to Nigeria receiving a second round of seeding for the  June 24 draws. Though, FIFA reportedly plans to issue a special ranking for African teams prior to the June 24 draws. So what should be done going into the future?

By the above, we acknowledge that FIFA's ranking, albeit with its imperfections, has been increasingly used to make very important decisions in competitive football. It is not just for seeding in an African qualifier but in seedings for global competition. Disadvantaged countries including those in Africa, like Nigeria, should learn how to make the system work to their benefit as much as possible in spite of the obstacles mentioned above.

We know that Switzerland played few international friendlies to ensure that it had a good ranking going into the draws for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In Africa, Egypt reneged on international friendlies planned against Malawi and Congo DR because of obvious negative effects of those games on Egypt's  ranking for the June 24 draws. We also know that Romania hired a consultant to help it go up the rankings in order to achieve a favorable seed in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers within UEFA. Wales also utilized the same strategy. This is the game that Nigeria may consider.

In Nigeria's case, I do not recommend not playing international friendlies. Rather, such friendlies must be strategic. Nigeria needs international friendlies against UEFA countries. These countries can be beaten and they have high coefficients based on the fact that they are members of UEFA Confederation. No point playing African countries that are ranked lower than Nigeria. There is hardly anything to gain from those games in terms of moving up the ranking. Instead, play against African countries ahead of Nigeria in FIFA ranking table or select less competitive UEFA countries that are usually ranked from 15-50 for international friendlies. These are winnable games that afford the benefits of (1) playing a team "supposedly" stronger than Nigeria, and (2) a team from a confederation with a significant weighting system attached. Those benefits matter as they move a country quicker up the FIFA ranking system.