Explained: How the FIFA world rankings are calculated

Scotland gained 1,080 points towards their FIFA world ranking for defeating Lithuania in October 2011.
Scotland gained 1,080 points towards their FIFA world ranking for defeating Lithuania in October 2011.©SNS Group

FIFA's world rankings are intended to be an at a glance measure of a national teams standing in the world game. Listing all 208 member associations in order of strength, the monthly updates often create as much controversy as clarity.

"How can nation X have climbed places without playing?", "Why didn't nation Y move up a place or two after winning?" and "Are we really on the same level as ?" are all questions that seem to dominate conversation whenever the rankings are discussed.

The calculations used to decide the best to worst teams currently playing at international level have been revised in recent years and , though still complicated, allow any fan to figure out who is better, and who is best following the month's international fixtures.

CALCULATING RANKING POINTS FROM EACH MATCH

Ranking points are given for all international ‘A’ matches, including friendlies, with results holding relevance in the overall rank for a total of 48 months.

Points are calculated using a formula which draws in four factors: the match outcome (M), the importance of the match (I), the strength of the opponent (T) and the strength of the confederation (C).

The overall points awarded to a nation are calculated as: points = (M x I x T x C).

Match outcome

Three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and none for a defeat. If a match goes to a penalty shootout, the winners are given two points and the defeated team are given one point.

If a team loses a match, it will receive no ranking points overall for the fixture.

Importance of match

International fixtures sit within one of four categories. A friendly match is equal to one point; a World Cup or confederation-level qualifier, such as the European Championships, is equal to 2.5 points; a match at a confederation-level tournament or the Confederations Cup is equal to three points; and a match at the World Cup counts for four points.

Opponent strength

An opponent’s strength is calculated by subtracting their FIFA world ranking at the time of the fixture from 200. For example, a match against Brazil in October 2011 would give 193 points, with the nation ranked seventh in the world.

The team in top spot count for 200 points while any nation ranked 150th or below are given the value of 50. For the purposes of the final calculation, the strength of an opponent is divided by 100.

Confederation strength

If two teams from the same confederation meet, the weighting for the area they reside in is used. If a game takes place between two nations from different regions, a mean score is taken from the two confederation scores.

UEFA and CONMEBOL is equal to one point; CONCACAF is 0.88; AFC and CAF is 0.86 and OFC equals 0.85.

Final calculation

To determine the final amount of points gained from a match, all of the above factors are multiplied.

As an example, Scotland gained 395 points from their draw with Czech Republic in September 2011. They accumulated one points for the result (M), 2.5 for the match importance (I), 158 from Czech Republic 42nd placing in the FIFA ranking (T) and one point from the confederation strength (C).

The final score is then added into a nation’s average for the past 12 months. Scotland's 12 month average stands at 296.3, having played 10 games.

OVERALL RANKING CALCULATION

All results within the previous 48 months are taken into consideration. The significance of results within the four year period, which are grouped into averages in 12 month chunks, decline year on year.

Averages are worth just 50% of their initial score after 12 months, 30% after 24 months and 20% in the period 36-48 months after a result has been recorded. All games which fall outside of the four year cycle are not taken into consideration.

It can be the case that a nation suffers a slump in the rankings even if its most recent results have been favourable. This is usually due to points being factored into a 12 month average, so if the accumulated points within the year haven’t been high, a fall can occur when better results from four years previous are discounted.

As FIFA's guidance on the rankings states: “Teams who often lose or draw matches will get fewer points. Furthermore, any team that records a major victory (e.g. a continental championship title) will suffer losses in the ranking 12 months later if, by that time, it has not gained lots of points in more recent matches.

“The longer it is since a match was played, the less important it becomes for the ranking. This continues until, after four years, the match no longer has any impact on the calculation of the ranking. As a result, it is possible for teams to climb or fall in the ranking even if they have not played.”

In brief, you don't have to play to rise or fall in the rankings. A great result from more than a year ago becomes less significant as time goes by and can even have a negative effect, if wins against bigger nations are not consistently achieved.

YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

@Kraljski: "How can the likes of Mexico & USA be looked upon as better than most given the inferior teams they play?"

The calculation method ensures nations do not enjoy a greater status because they win matches against inferior opposition.

Why does it span over the space of four years?

Because the World Cup is every four years. That sets the length of a "cycle" in world football.

@Skamhead: "I've got a question regarding England's rank. Last update their game was postponed yet they still climbed the table. Why?"

Their average improved more than those around them. Brazil's good results at the 2007 Copa America "dropped off" as they were more than 48 months old and England's home defeat to Germany in a friendly in August 2007 also ceased to count, improving their average. Also, other results for both sides degrade over time as they reach 12, 24 and 36 months old.

@Linton1388: "How can a team that doesn't play go up in the rankings, when the team they're replacing win a game?"

The rankings place is based on results from the last four years, with wins and draws carrying less significance over time. So a team that won their last game might drop because wins from one, two and three years are devalued and over four-year old results drop off.

So team A, who didn't play, might not have "good" results dropping off and their average remains the same but team B, who won, might have several wins dropping off or becoming less important as they age, bringing their average down.

@Scotphotojourno:** "Could it be argued that the rankings favour the bigger teams and nations, directly or indirectly?"**

As far as the formula is concerned, it applies the same way to every team. However, sustained success can be rewarded in that higher level games carry more weight.

If team A played three games this summer at the Copa America and drew all three, while team B played three World Cup qualifying matches and also drew them, then A would pick up more points than B.

Teams that regularly win and qualify for tournaments play for more points, more often. on the other hand, a smaller team narrowly beating a bigger one will move further up the rankings than a big team comprehensively beating a small one.

The "importance of games" section above details the grading.

@bigsamthetim: "Do 'easy' friendlies help your chances of going up or does getting stuffed by a "better" team help."

Losing to any team, whether it's Brazil or San Marino, has no bearing. Either way, no points are gained. But, on the other hand, playing a friendly against Faroe Islands and winning only provides a minor points boost.

If a country wants to gain ranking points, it makes more sense to play a team either near or above them in the rankings where it would be considered possible a result can be achieved.

Scotland provide a nice comparison. Losing to Brazil didn't put points on the board, but beating Faroe Islands in November 2010 only contributed 207 points. The friendly win over Denmark in August 2011 contributed 537.

@_LauraBrannan: "How much of a difference does it make if we win/lose 1-0 to 5-0?"

The scoreline in a match has no bearing. The points calculation only takes into consideration whether a game has been won, drawn or lost. There is also no consideration taken as to whether a match is played at home, away or at a neutral venue.

Article by Grant Russell (@STVGrant) and Andrew Coyle (@STV_Andy)

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