FIFA introduces an Elo system

by André Schulz
6/14/2018 – At the end of the FIFA Council last Sunday in Moscow, the World Football Association announced that it would reform its world ranking for the national football teams. There was much criticism of the previous ranking system and the new formula is based on the chess Elo.

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From chess to football

The usual chess rating system for evaluating the playing strength of chess players conceived by Prof. Arpad Elo is now increasingly used in other sports, sometimes in a slightly modified version adapted to the particular sport. For example, the Elo system also forms the basis for calculating the rankings in some table tennis associations.

Even in football, the formula developed by Elo is used as the basis for rankings. The ranking of women's national teams was determined by FIFA from the beginning, which was in 2003, officially based on the Elo formula. For this list, all women's matches since April 17th 1971 were considered. On this day, the first women's international match recognized by FIFA was played between France and the Netherlands. When calculating the Elo numbers for the women's national football teams, the importance of the game is taken into account, which is not a concept known in chess. The scored underlying the result is also included in the calculation.

Current FIFA Women's ranking (Top 20)

Rank Team Points
1 USA 2115
2 England 2042
3 Germany 2033
4 Canada 2029
5 France 2025
6 Australia 2018
7 Netherlands 1972
8 Brazil 1968
9 Sweden 1963
10 North Korea 1955
11 Japan 1950
12 Spain 1886
13 Denmark 1884
14 Norway 1871
15 Italy 1864
16 South Korea 1860
17 China 1855
18 Switzerland 1849
19 Iceland 1819
20 New Zealand 1815

So far, FIFA has used a different basis for calculating its world ranking in men's football. On the one hand, the formula was quite complex, on the other hand, it was not well thought-out in some aspects and sometimes led to strange effects. As a result, the FIFA ranking has often been heavily criticized over the years.

Current FIFA Rankings (left) vs Unofficial football Elo list

Rank Team Points
1 Germany 1558
2 Brazil 1431
3 Belgium 1298
4 Portugal 1274
5 Argentina 1241
6 Switzerland 1199
7 France 1198
8 Poland 1183
9 Chile 1135
10 Spain 1126
11 Peru 1125
12 Denmark 1051
13 England 1051
14 Uruguay 1018
15 Mexico 1008
16 Colombia 989
17 Netherlands 981
18 Wales 953
19 Italy 951
20 Croatia 945
Rank Team Points
1 Brazil 2142
2 Germany 2077
3 Spain 2044
4 France 1987
5 Argentina 1986
6 Portugal 1970
7 England 1948
8 Belgium 1939
9 Colombia 1928
10 Peru 1915
11 Netherlands 1908
12 Uruguay 1894
13 Italy 1891
14 Switzerland 1890
15 Chile 1869
16 Denmark 1856
17 Croatia 1853
18 Mexico 1850
19 Poland 1831
20 Sweden 1795

In addition to the official FIFA ranking, unofficial leaderboards have also been run according to Elo, for national teams and also for club teams. As you can see (above right), the calculation according to Elo differs in part from the FIFA list, although the placement seems more "intuitively" plausible after the Elo calculation. More than a few football experts, for example, consider the Spanish national team stronger than the Swiss — with all due respect to the ever-improving skills of the Swiss football players.

The "Elo" numbers on this list seem a bit strange to the chess player because the values move in a different, lower range than chess. For chess fans, the numbers that Roman Korba produced in his calculation for the Bundesliga clubs last season are a little more familiar.

Ratings for the German League Teams

Rank Club Rating
1 Bayern München 2741
2 FC Schalke 04 2533
3 Borussia Dortmund 2522
4 TSG 1899 Hoffenheim 2508
5 Bayer Leverkusen 2499
6 Eintracht Frankfurt 2467
7 VfB Stuttgart 2465
8 RB Leipzig 2460
9 Werder Bremen 2448
10 Borussia Mönchengladbach 2433
11 FC Augsburg 2382
12 Hertha BSC 2381
13 VfL Wolfsburg 2378
14 1. FSV Mainz 05 2371
15 Hannover 96 2353
16 SC Freiburg 2348
17 Hamburger SV 2333
18 1. FC Köln 2311

Last Sunday, FIFA announced that it will introduce a new ranking system based on the Elo formula following the 2018 World Cup, which started today in Russia, in line with the women's football system.

A group of experts has developed the new system with the aim of "... simplifying and refining the formula, eliminating opportunities to manipulate the rankings and giving all teams the same opportunity to improve their ranking".

New Formula

The rankings should now be calculated according to the following formula:

After a game P, the score of a team is calculated as follows:

old formula

Where P old stands for the score before the game. Initially, the score is used according to the old calculation method.

The following applies:

I - stands for the weighting of the game. These range from 5 for friendly matches played outside international windows to 60 for World Cup final rounds starting from the quarter-finals. 
W - is the score with: 
1 = win 
0.5 = draw 
0 = defeat

W e is the expected result, based on the scores P old of both teams A and B before the game: 

new formula

Since 1992, there have been no rankings. Recently, however, it has become increasingly important, not least because FIFA has used the rankings for the determination of the playing groups at World Cup.

Incidentally, the opening match is being played as we write, between host Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Translation from German: Macauley Peterson


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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