Is Germany Overrated and England Underrated? Reflections on the FIFA Rankings

PORT ELIZABETH, July 2, 2010 A fan holds a model of ''Jules Rimet Cup'' to cheer prior to the 2010 World Cup round of 8 soccer match between the Netherlands and Brazil at Nelson Mandela Bay stadium in Port Elizabeth,South Africa, on July 2, 2010.

How accurate are the FIFA rankings? With the recent update of the rankings and England, to the surprise of many, moving up to seventh and Uruguay slotting in ten places up to sixth, are they an accurate measure?

When first introduced in 1992, the rankings were not taken seriously. However, with updates and revisions, the rankings are slowly gaining some credibility. FIFA now state point calculation on the following basis:

  • Points for a win, draw or defeat (3, 1, 0)
  • Status of match (multiplication factor of 1 to 4)
  • Strength of opponent (multiplication factor of between 0.50 and 2.00)
  • Strength of confederation in question (multiplication factor of between 0.85 and 1.00)

Cross checking the ELO ratings and FIFA rankings demonstrates close enough results. England are ranked seventh according to FIFA and sixth in the ELO rankings. If you’re interested, the Wikipedia page of both (click here and here) rankings provide the formula of calculation. However, like all statistics calculations, there is always some detachment from the nuances of grounded reality. For example, Uruguay’s ten position leap was mainly based on reaching the World Cup semi-final. However had Asamoah Gyan scored his penalty things would have been very different. Penalties are a lottery. Last World Cup Uruguay and Paraguay won a shoot-out, enabling both to progress but how useful is tournament progression when ranking a team? Friendlies carry weight but in what manner was a friendly played and what teams were fielded? Was the manager testing formations and fringe players?

More weight could be added to the ranking if friendlies were made more important. To increase the competitiveness of friendlies, FIFA could ensure there are more consequences on their results – for example, more importance in future seedings in either qualifiers and World Cup Finals or entrance into a mini-tournament – maybe replacing the Confederations Cup.

As a football purist, I would rather the best team won on merit and there is no league competition in international football – so ranking international teams is very limited. Socrates, Brazilian player from the 1982 World Cup, opines that “There are no assurances in football. And this is even more evident in a tournament like the World Cup. The World Cup is actually a football fair; not a proper championship. In a championship, you would expect to win the title with that side. But in the World Cup, where more than half of the matches are knock-out ties, anything is possible. Merit doesn’t count.”

In a championship the proactive teams are rightly rewarded and reactive/destructive tactics show their limitations over 38 matches, but not necessarily over a one off cup game.

How good are Germany?
Very good but not that good as France (1998-2000), Brazil (2000-2006) and currently Spain. This German team, despite talk of breakthrough players, are limited and I can’t see how they could measure to any of the previously listed teams, in the near future. Last World Cup, apart from two freakish results against England and Argentina, they predictably melted against a superior Spanish team. Of course, the manner of defeat was not as emphatic as in 2008 but it was emphatic enough. I don’t see this team measuring against the German teams of 1974 and 1990 but they are an improved team, considering 2006 and even 2008. In fact, they remind me of Holland – four to five exceptional players but overall limited.

As for tactics, well a similar comparison can be made with the 2008 version of Holland. Netherlands adopted a similar counter attacking game and demolished both Italy (3-0) and France (4-1), in what were similarly freakish results. Setting up with two deep holding midfielders and playing a disciplined reactive game can yield these type of results, if performed to near perfection and game dynamics go your way, as happened with Germany, but this is a percentage game, with a low margin of error. The true test is when conceding a goal and chasing a game – what then? Once Spain took the lead against Germany, in their semi-final match-up, there was only going to be one result. Where to rank this current German team? Fifth, just below Holland.

Quarter-final England
I don’t agree with the idea that England are perennial underachievers. In fact they have shown a consistency that belies this claim. England are a quarter-final team and the recent poor showing at 2010 World Cup doesn’t reverse this trend – as noted comparing teams in international football can be difficult, so at most we can record trends from either games played or tournament performances over longer periods. FIFA rankings have consistently placed England as a quarter-final team. They are a good team, usually within the top ten, but nothing more. The better question to ask is not if England have under-achieved but why have they hardly improved?

With the resources available and one of the more affluent football associations, England, at all levels, have under-achieved. That’s the question that perplexes me and can be asked about other case points. For example, why have the west Asian Gulf countries stagnated, while their south eastern Asian counterparts (South Korea and Japan) improved? After all, the resources are there but it does not translate into better footballing standards. Obviously each case must be studied and we should be careful with any generalisation but can we speak of certain recurring trends, leading to either stagnation or improvement – what makes a locality more successful, in footballing terms? Many football books have been written on this subject but some are travesties, utilising pre-suppositions in the form of folk sociological categories. In future posts, I will look at the case study of Belgium, an interesting case.

In conclusion, I would produce the following top 10 rankings, a prediction on how each team would finish in a league table, after a whole season of football:

  1. Spain
  2. Brazil
  3. Argentina
  4. Holland
  5. Germany
  6. France
  7. England
  8. Portugal
  9. Italy
  10. Croatia or possibly Uruguay

Quick pointers
Some might question the ranking of Argentina above Germany but aberrations aside – their quarter-final match-up, which was a tactical victory for the Germans, Argentina still have more attacking power. As noted, in a league system, better teams find themselves at the end of a thrashing – the dynamic of a one off game: naive tactics, defensive errors and poor discipline etc. e.g. Liverpool heavily defeating Manchester United, only for United to win the league in 2009. Over a league system, Argentina with a more mature management team could finish just above Germany but we will never know.

France? Mutinies aside, they have the players and now the manager to potentially push them into third in the rankings. The U19 team are doing very well and with young talent coming through, Les Bleus have potential. They are sixth, due to their bad run, but can break into the top five – the same cannot be said about the current set-up of English football.

A final note, the rankings are not only on current form – also considered would be potential (young players and potential breakthrough talent) and current players available. In mind is a league system and considering which squad have how each team would finish, with consideration given to a long and tiring 38 match season.


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