So You Want to Schedule an International Friendly…

There are many reasons to schedule a friendly match.  Team building, evaluation of youth talent, and getting ready for an upcoming difficult World Cup Qualifier are among the biggest.  But one increasingly important factor, which we have vilified since the inception of this site, is boosting your FIFA ranking.

While teams do not have control over their opponents in tournaments, they do have a say in their opponents in friendlies.  This post is strictly in regards to raising your FIFA ranking.

 

Background

Before we get into any of the finer details, we’ll give a quick overview of how FIFA counts points for friendlies.  FIFA uses a “multiplier” system to calculate the value of an individual match.  For friendly matches, there are only 3 things that matter:

  1. In what confederation is your opponent?
  2. What is your opponent’s FIFA rank at the time of the match?
  3. What is the result of the match?

These are truly the only things the FIFA rankings care about.  Of all the criteria that they could use, these choices seem a little odd.  The biggest advantage in knowing that these are the criteria is that they can be exploited.

 

The Formula

To calculate the number of points for a friendly match, FIFA simply takes 1 x 2 x 3.  Items 1 and 2 will ALWAYS have positive values, but if you lose a friendly match, item 3 equals 0.  Some simple math will tell us that 0 multiplied by any number always equals 0.  If you lose, you get nothing!  Good day sir!

What we will go on to show is that the ultimate goal of any friendly match for purposes of boosting your FIFA ranking should be to win.  While this conjecture is not all that sophisticated, we will show that getting a win is far more important than playing a quality opponent for ranking purposes.

 

What’s Missing?

There are two missing items which we will continue to harp on in regards to FIFA rankings:

  • The amount of goals a team wins by in a match has no bearing on the calculation.

What this means is that beating San Marino by 22 goals will not help you any more than beating Lithuania by 1.  You will get more points for beating Lithuania every single time.

  • Where the match is played has no bearing on the calculation.

This is the biggest item missing from the calculation.  It’s a flat out flaw that should be exploited.  For ranking purposes, why travel to an opponent when you can have an easier match either at home or at a neutral venue?  Obviously it can be difficult to continuously get opponents to agree to travel, but it will give a major advantage to any team to not have to play on the road.

 

Should You Schedule a Friendly?

Surprisingly, the answer here is not always yes.  Of course on international match days, most teams don’t want to sit idle.  It is always a good opportunity to evaluate talent.  Federations should, however, be looking to schedule a match in which there is at least some possibility of improving FIFA ranking.  The highest number of points anyone can gain from a friendly would be a win against the #1 ranked team in the world.  The calculation would be Confederation Weight (=1) x Team Strength (=200) x Result (=3).  This produces a total of 600 points.

For any team that has a current year point avrerage according to FIFA of over 600 points, any friendly match played will hurt your FIFA ranking.

For the rest of the teams, prior to scheduling any friendly, nations should strongly consider the maximum points attainable.  If that number is lower than a team’s current year point average, even a win will hurt your FIFA ranking.

Obviously there is a risk/reward with scheduling a more difficult team, but scheduling a match where your maximum points attatinable are lower than your current year point average is a major mistake.

 

Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing

As we pointed out above, you get absolutely nothing for a loss.  But what is very intriguing about the points calculation is how much more you get for a win than for a draw.  By comparison, according to FIFA, a draw against the USA is equivalent to a win over both San Marino and Malta.  In fact, a draw at USA is equivalent to beating San Marino by 1 goal at home.

In the most extreme case, a draw at Spain, the #1 team in the world, is worth the same in FIFA’s eyes as beating teams like Kenya, Antigua and Barbuda, and Grenada at home.  In fact, beating teams such as Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Malawi, and Saudi Arabia at home are worth more than a draw at Spain.

The bottom line is that if you want to move up in the rankings from a friendly, you MUST be looking to win.

 

Schedule Prospectively, Because the Date Matters

One of the items which we indicated is part of the calculation is “What is your opponent’s ranking at the time of the match?”  The key portion here is at the time of the match.  That’s all the calculation cares about.  FIFA does not go back retroactively and adjust points when the rankings update.  Once the match is played, you take the points into earnings.  If you are scheduling months in advance, you may want to prospectively take a look at where a team will stand when the match is played.

Here’s a ridiculous example: New Zealand is projected to climb over 30 spots when the rankings are updated on June 6th.  If you beat New Zealand on June 5th, it’s worth 288 points.  If you beat New Zealand on June 7th, it’s worth 367 points.  I would think the match is equally difficult on both dates, but the FIFA formula would disagree.  If a team is projected to make a huge jump like this, it might be beneficial to schedule these teams before another country can, knowing that you can gain a lot from the match.

 

Who Should You Play?

Here’s the real question.  We’ll show some specific examples based on the FIFA rankings and our rankings, and we’ll take a look at some teams that have made major scheduling mistakes.  The first thing to remember is teams should never schedule matches away.  While it may be a challenge to continuously get foreign countries to come to your nation, at worst settle for a neutral venue.  Here are some examples:

  • Sweden

Currently #24 in the FIFA rankings, Sweden made the exact mistake of scheduling poorly with a June 3rd friendly against FYR Macedonia.  Their current year point average is 368, and the maximum points they can get in this match is 348.  No matter what the outcome is, they will lose points and fall in the rankings.  In this case, they would have been better served to go on the road and at least see what the team is made of if they couldn’t schedule a more worthy opponent.

What they should have done is filter out all opponents for which they would get less than 368 points with a win.  This would limit their potential opponents to approximately 65 teams, which is still a large pool to choose from.  From there, try to figure out the risk/reward of picking a strong team in FIFA’s eyes that you think you can beat.

If I were to choose a proper opponent, I would have looked at Denmark.  Regionally they are nearby, so travel is not a major issue.  Of the 209 FIFA nations, only 17 opponents would give you more points than Denmark.  But most importantly, the FIFA rankings have overrated Denmark significantly.  They are #20 in the world despite being 4th in their World Cup Qualifying group.  We currently have them at #60 in the world.  Our rankings would predict a 2 goal victory for Sweden over Denmark, should they play in Sweden.

This would have been a great opportunity for Sweden to improve their FIFA ranking by a pretty significant amount.  That certainly would be a big help should Sweden end up in the 2nd Place Play-Off in World Cup Qualifying.

 

  • Egypt

Another strong example of scheduling malfunction is with Bob Bradley’s squad in Egypt.  Given that it is highly likely Egypt progress to the final round of World Cup Qualifying in Africa, Egypt should be looking to improve their standing in the FIFA rankings as soon as possible.  Getting into Pot 1 could help them avoid powerhouses such as Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Ghana.  They are currently #68 in the FIFA rankings with a current year point average of 223.  Given that they can only get 193 points with a win in their friendly with Botswana on 6/4, they should have done far better.

223 is a pretty low point average, so the options for a proper opponent are far greater than Sweden.  Getting teams to come to Egypt is a little more difficult, however.  Again, I’d be looking for a team that is regionally nearby as well as overrated by FIFA.  Iran would have been a perfect fit had they not already had a World Cup Qualifier planned for 6/4.

I’d first reach out to Sierra Leone.  While they may be unwilling to travel as far as Egypt, meeting up in a neutral location could also be a good possibility.  We have Egypt projected as 3 goal winners at home and 2 goal winners at a neutral venue.  This would be worth 343 points.  As a backup, I would have looked at a team like Slovenia to try and fill that space.  While this would be a tough match, a win would be worth 435 points, and Egypt looks far stronger right now than does Slovenia.  Again, a neutral venue could have worked if a home fixture was unavailable.

 

Conclusions

While the FIFA system is clearly imperfect, unfortunately it is not irrelevant.  Confederations frequently use the FIFA rankings to separate their teams into “equal” groups.  More than likely, UEFA and CAF will separate teams in their final World Cup Qualifying round based on some future standing of teams in the FIFA rankings.  The time is now for teams to do whatever they can to improve their ranking.  Facing a weaker opponent in a friendly could be the difference between reaching Brazil and watching from home.

If you would like to know more about how a specific nation can improve their ranking, we’d love to hear from you.  Feel free to contact us at any time.  We can be reached at briff@weglobalfootball.com and also on Twitter @We_Global.  Thanks for reading!

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