If all goes to plan, the 2018 World Cup group stage is poised to be one of the most balanced in competition history. FIFA’s new seeding system has, for the most part, separated contenders from pretenders. It will prevent Groups of Death.
But if there is one seeding anomaly that threatens to wreak imbalanced havoc on next summer’s tournament, it is at the top of the draw. Poland, making its first World Cup appearance since 2006, is alongside Germany and Brazil in Pot 1. Spain, an undisputed top-five team in the world, is in Pot 2.
Hang on … What? Why? How?
All valid questions. And all questions that can be answered by three words: the FIFA Rankings.
That’s the shortest version of the answer. The mid-length version is that seeding is based on those FIFA Rankings. And since the end of the last major international tournament, Euro 2016, Poland has gamed them. It has, with one exception, refused to play friendlies – likely because it realized that by abstaining, it could artificially inflate its ranking and sneak into Pot 1.
But to fully understand Poland’s rise, and fully answer the question, we must first explain the FIFA Rankings, how they’re calculated, and why they’re flawed.
How the FIFA Rankings penalize teams for playing friendlies
The first key is that the rankings are based on averages, not sums. Every national team is assigned a point total for each match that it plays. Those individual point totals from a given 12-month period are then averaged to calculate a yearly rating. As long as a team plays at least five matches over the 12 months, there is no difference between playing five and 15.
The second key is that one of the three main factors that go into individual match point totals is the “importance” of the game in question. Friendlies (1), qualifiers (2.5), continental competitions (3) and World Cup matches (4) are assigned multipliers that skew the totals. In other words, a win at the Euros is worth thrice as much as a win over the same opponent in a friendly.
The maximum amount of points a friendly can yield is 600. For reference, Poland’s average per-match point total over the past year when the October 2017 rankings were calculated was 789.59. So, near the top of the rankings, friendlies almost always drag a team down.
The best way to illustrate this is with the two teams in question, Poland and Spain. The Poles played one friendly between Euro 2016 and the October 2017 rankings. Spain played four: It beat No. 5 Belgium, drew No. 12 England, beat No. 7 France and drew No. 13 Colombia. Poland drew No. 68 Slovenia, but on the whole, its one was far less damaging than Spain’s four.
Let’s compare the ranking points gleaned from friendlies to those gleaned from qualifiers. Last autumn, Spain was awarded 1200 points for beating Albania – that’s 2.5 (the qualifying multiplier) x 3 (for the win) x 160 (200 – Albania’s ranking at the time, 40). It was awarded 467.5 for a qualifying draw against Italy. It was awarded only 188 for a friendly draw against England – 1 (friendly multiplier) x 1 (for the draw) x 188 (200 – England’s ranking at the time, 12).
This past March, Spain beat Israel in a qualifier for 1080 points, and beat France in a friendly for just 582. Poland, meanwhile, beat Montenegro in a qualifier for 1020. It did not play a friendly, despite an open date, and therefore came away from the international break with a 1020-point average. Spain’s, despite the impressive result against France – or, rather, because of it – was 831.
Friendlies devalue every competitive win. They siphon off points from the overall average. They’re the reason Poland was able to surpass the Spaniards, despite Spain winning nine of its 10 qualifiers and drawing the 10th.
Poland, of course, had to win games as well, and it did. A loss is an automatic 0, regardless of opponent or match importance, so avoiding them is crucial. Poland went 8-1-1 in a qualifying group that featured Denmark, plus ranked-higher-than-you-think Montenegro and Romania.
All of this is why its average over the 12 months that preceded the October rankings was 789.59, fourth-best in the world. Over the previous 12 months, its average was 678.43, sixth-best. Only Germany and Brazil, No. 1 and 2 in the world, bettered it in both periods.
Those two years, which included a Euro 2016 quarterfinal run, allowed Poland to overcome two mediocre years before them. The FIFA Rankings take into account the past 48 months, but the value of matches depreciate on a yearly basis. The most recent 12 months essentially account for 50 percent of an overall rating, while the second-most recent 12 account for another 25 percent.
A full explanation of the formula and calculations can be found here, but the moral of the story is that the system can be exploited. The Poles aren’t the only ones who have cracked the code. Wales did, and also likely would have been in Pot 1 had it qualified.
But Poland, more than any of its peers, combined exploitation with on-field success. Because it did, it has a meaningful advantage entering Friday’s draw.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.