New international football / soccer rankings show recent form of nations

world_soccer_June19_2014The FIFA rankings suck. Not only do they poorly predict the outcome of matches, but you have to wait a month for updates.

The Power Rank international football / soccer rankings do better. The ranking algorithm considers margin of victory in adjusting for schedule strength in international soccer. As an academic study has shown, using margin of victory is critical in making predictions.

In addition, the international rankings are now updated daily.

This constant updating is interesting during the World Cup. My rankings use a 4 year window of matches and weight matches by their importance.

  • World Cup Finals: 4.
  • World Cup Qualifiers, Confederations Cup, Continental Finals: 3.
  • Continental Qualifiers, 2.
  • Friendlies, 1.

Since we’re in the middle of a World Cup, the rankings add important matches each day while dropping results from the previous World Cup. This leads to some interesting changes for certain teams.

Spain and the Netherlands

The Netherlands dominated Spain in a 5-1 win last week. This dropped an aging Spain team down to 6th. The FIFA rankings still have Spain as the top team.

The Dutch have risen to 4th. It mystifies me why more people didn’t think this traditional power could win this World Cup.

Germany and Brazil

While most other respectable rankings have Brazil on top, the weighting of matches in The Power Rank vaults Germany ahead of Brazil.

Germany has played well in the last two World Cups. In 2010, they dominated Argentina in a 4-0 rout. Just last week, they beat Portugal, another top 10 team, by the same margin.

With no weighting, Brazil would be the top team in The Power Rank.

United States and Ghana

The Yanks are 18th currently, one spot above the Ghana squad they just beat.

The United States won the game because of two great finishes by Clint Dempsey and John Brooks. However, between these two goals, Ghana dominated possession and scoring opportunities. They were the better team.

Colombia and Chile

These two South American teams are in the top 10. Colombia is ranked higher at 5th, but Chile is not far behind at 7th.

From this World Cup, the Colombia looks like the better team. They continue to score goals despite the absence of Radamel Falcao, their leading scorer in qualifying.

Moreover, my aggregated win probabilities before the World Cup gave Colombia an almost 4% chance to win it all. Chile only had a 1.9% chance.

Belgium and France

Belgium has generated much chatter as a dark horse World Cup champion. Young players like Eden Hazard have dazzled on the pitch at this World Cup.

However, their performance over the last 4 years ranks them 13th in The Power Rank. That puts them lower than France (9th), a team no has talked about as World Cup champion. (Of course, France is missing star winger Frank Ribery for this World Cup.)

Belgium’s play as a team does not make me believe they will contend for the World Cup title. My aggregated win probabilities before the tourney agree with this assessment. Belgium had the 11th highest win probability at 2.3%.

Rankings of World Cup teams

Here are rankings of the 32 World Cup teams that consider matches from June 20, 2010 through June 19, 2014. The record gives wins, losses and ties over the past 4 years. The rating gives an expected margin of victory against an average international team.

1. Germany, (37-7-11), 2.52
2. Brazil, (40-9-12), 2.28
3. Argentina, (32-8-15), 2.15
4. Netherlands, (33-9-11), 2.09
5. Colombia, (24-8-11), 2.09
6. Spain, (45-8-8), 2.05
7. Chile, (29-17-9), 1.69
8. Uruguay, (28-14-15), 1.69
9. France, (28-11-12), 1.59
10. Portugal, (26-9-13), 1.54
11. Ecuador, (17-14-15), 1.48
12. Mexico, (35-18-17), 1.48
13. Belgium, (22-8-12), 1.44
14. England, (25-8-14), 1.43
15. Ivory Coast, (31-7-9), 1.42
16. Italy, (22-12-21), 1.40
17. Ghana, (30-15-14), 1.29
18. United States, (37-17-12), 1.25
19. Russia, (24-6-13), 1.25
21. Switzerland, (20-7-12), 1.23
23. Croatia, (24-10-11), 1.16
24. Nigeria, (29-11-21), 1.11
27. Japan, (33-12-13), 1.07
28. Bosnia-Herzegovina, (21-14-7), 1.03
30. Costa Rica, (25-23-19), 0.95
32. Greece, (24-8-16), 0.91
34. Australia, (26-16-11), 0.87
35. Iran, (30-8-16), 0.85
38. South Korea, (24-17-12), 0.80
43. Honduras, (22-24-18), 0.75
50. Cameroon, (16-13-12), 0.60
53. Algeria, (19-10-6), 0.56

For all teams, click here.

Predictions

The Power Rank also provides predictions for each match and stages of the competition, both of which are update nightly.

These predictions use a different set of rankings that consider a 12 year window of games. Research as shown that these calculations are as accurate in predicting match outcomes as using a 4 year window.

World Cup 2014 win probabilities from The Power Rank

wc2014_winprobWho will win the 2014 World Cup?

The visual shows the top contenders according to The Power Rank. This list gives the odds for all 32 teams.

1. Brazil, 35.9%.
2. Argentina, 10.0%.
3. Spain, 8.9%.
4. Germany, 7.4%.
5. Netherlands, 5.7%.
6. Portugal, 3.9%.
7. France, 3.4%.
8. England, 2.8%.
9. Uruguay, 2.5%.
10. Mexico, 2.5%.
11. Italy, 2.3%.
12. Ivory Coast, 2.0%.
13. Colombia, 1.5%.
14. Russia, 1.5%.
15. United States, 1.1%.
16. Chile, 1.0%.
17. Croatia, 0.9%.
18. Ecuador, 0.8%.
19. Nigeria, 0.8%.
20. Switzerland, 0.7%.
21. Greece, 0.6%.
22. Iran, 0.6%.
23. Japan, 0.6%.
24. Ghana, 0.6%.
25. Belgium, 0.4%.
26. Honduras, 0.3%.
27. South Korea, 0.3%.
28. Bosnia-Herzegovina, 0.3%.
29. Costa Rica, 0.3%.
30. Cameroon, 0.2%.
31. Australia, 0.2%.
32. Algeria, 0.1%.

For those interested in my methods, see the end of this post.

But first, some quick thoughts on a few teams.

Brazil

The host nation Brazil has the highest win probability at 36%.

Home advantage plays a big role in these large odds. On average, the home team scored about 0.56 goals more than the road team over the last 3 cycles of World Cup qualifying.

As discussed in the book Scorecasting, referee bias plays a big role in home advantage. In last year’s Confederation Cup final, Spain tried to execute their short passing game against the home nation Brazil. From my perspective, the referees let Brazil get away with fouls that stymied Spain’s attack. Brazil won 3-0.

But Brazil also plays some magnificent soccer as the top ranked team in The Power Rank. Their young star Neymar will dazzle you with his quick feet and skills.

Argentina

The other traditional soccer power from South America, ranked 3rd in The Power Rank, has the second highest win probability at 10%.

Argentina benefits from a weak group with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. I like to call it Group of Eternal Life. They have a 85% chance to advance to the knock out stage.

Argentina might also benefit from a home continent advantage. It’s much easier for Argentina fans to travel to Brazil for the World Cup than nations from Europe. Enough fans in attendance could create a home advantage effect like Brazil will enjoy.

I did not include a home continent advantage in my model, so Argentina might have even better odds than 10%.

United States

Expectations are different for the United States. Surviving a tough group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana would be a huge achievement. My numbers give the Yanks a 38% to make the knock out stage.

Those are decent odds for the 20th ranked team in the world. I also looked at their ranking when including only games with Jurgen Klinsmann as coach. Despite all those goals they scored in last year’s Gold Cup, the United States only rises to 17th.

The road to winning the World Cup gets harder in the knock out stage. The United States has a 1.1% chance to win the World Cup, 15th best out of 32 nations.

However, Connecticut had a 1.5% chance to win the 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tourney by my numbers. They beat Kentucky to win an improbable title.

Better predictions

Here’s the truth: If you want the most accurate predictions about who will win the World Cup, you shouldn’t just look at my predictions.

One system is not enough. Research has shown that better predictions arise from aggregating many predictions. This was a key finding in a recent academic paper on using rankings to predicting football matches.

Yeah, it’s a blow to my massive ego. 🙂 But you deserve the best possible predictions for the 2014 World Cup.

I’m curating World Cup predictions from other sources. Next week, I’ll aggregate these predictions for my email list, since they’re my favorite people in the world.

If you want to see those results (and you really should if you’re in any kind of World Cup pool), sign up for my free email newsletter. It’s the best way to get updates on The Power Rank’s content.

Just enter your email address and click on “Sign up now.”








Methodology

Still reading? Thanks, you’re the best.

The World Cup win probabilities start with The Power Rank’s algorithm for ranking teams. It takes margin of victory in matches and adjusts for strength of schedule. With the wide disparity between countries in international soccer, this adjustment is critical for predicting the World Cup.

This algorithm can not only rank teams but also the offense and defense of each team. This allows me to estimate the goal rate for an offense against an opposing defense.

To predict the outcome of a match, I pick a Poisson random variable according to these goal rates per 90 minutes. This model says a team has the same rate of scoring a goal at any point in the match.

For example, teams score 1.34 goals per 90 minutes in international play. This implies that a team has a 1.4% chance to score a goal during any minute. For each minute, you could flip a coin that comes up heads 14 out of every 1000 flips. Repeating this flipping 90 times and counting the heads is the same as getting goals from a Poisson random variable.

To simulate the World Cup, I use this Poisson model for each match in the group stage. To see the predictions for all 48 matches, check out the predictions page.

This model gives not only the winner or loser of each match but also a score. The scores allow for the calculation of tie breakers, which consider goal differential and goals scored.

The same Poisson model applies in the knock out stage. If two teams are tied on goals after regulation, the model is applied again for extra time. I assume each team has a 50-50 chance to win penalty kicks.

The win probabilities arise from counting the number of times each team wins over 10,000 simulations.

What Everybody Ought to Know About World Football / Soccer

The FIFA rankings are terrible.

Behind the disguise of weighting factors and other funny math, the FIFA rankings are a table of results. Win a match, get 3 points. Draw a match, earn 1 point. Attempt to adjust for strength of competition and divide by the number of games played, and you have a rating for each country.

But tables are misleading. For example, Newcastle finished 5th in the English Premier League. However, they scored only 5 more goals than they allowed, only 8th best among 20 teams. Goal differential is predictive of team strength, so Newcastle got a bit lucky this year.

At least in the Premier league, each team plays every other team twice. Tables are even more misleading in world football since countries play schedules of differing strength.

Rankings for World Football / Soccer Teams by The Power Rank algorithmHere at The Power Rank, we have developed better ranking system based on years of research in statistical physics. Instead of counting up points for wins and ties, we solve a set of linear equations, the bedrock operation in modern data mining. Moreover, our algorithm accounts for margin of victory and strength of schedule in ranking countries. Using all major international competitions since 2009, our algorithm assigns each team a rating, which gives a team’s strength in goals compared to the average international team. So Spain’s 2.0 rating says they will beat the average team (Belgium) by 2 goals on average at a neutral site.

While we haven’t tested these predictions on international football yet, the predictions for American college football work quite well. Over the last 10 years of college football bowl games (late season games played at neutral sites), the rankings have predicted more game winners, 62.4%, than the Vegas betting line, 61.7%. This sample includes 314 games.

For world soccer, the rankings reveal some hidden truths that everyone ought to know.

Brazil is the best team in the world

They haven’t done so well in their last two major competitions. The Brazilians exited the World Cup in 2010 in the quarterfinals against the Netherlands. Coach Dunga left after this debacle. Then in last year’s Copa America, Brazil lost to Paraguay in the quarterfinals.

However, our algorithm still thinks highly of Brazil due to their consistent track record of success. They won the Confederation’s Cup in 2009. More importantly, they finished first in World Cup qualifying out of South America, a brutal stretch of 18 games against some of the best teams in the world. Lastly, tournament soccer leaves even the best teams in the world subject to random chance. Brazil lost to the Netherlands on a freak own goal by Felipe Melo. Their exit in Copa America came in penalty kicks after a 0-0 draw.

Let’s contrast Brazil with Uruguay, the 5th best team in the world. Uruguay had more success than Brazil in the World Cup (4th place) and Copa America (winner). However, they finished 5th in World Cup qualifying in South America, 10 points back of Brazil. Uruguay had to win a playoff against Costa Rica just to make the World Cup.

And then no one will ever forgot the luck bestowed upon Uruguay against Ghana in the World Cup. Tied late in the quarterfinal game, Uruguayian striker Luis Suarez intentionally blocks a sure goal with his hand. Then Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan missed the ensuing penalty kick, allowing Uruguay to win the game in penalty kicks. Watch it again here.

We mean no disrespect to Uruguay. It takes incredible talent and work to earn the 5th spot in these rankings. However, Brazil is the better team.

Is the United States better than Mexico?

Well, no. The Power Rank puts Mexico at 12th, while the United States comes in at 22nd.

However, this distinction rests on a single game. In 2009, the United States went to the Confederations Cup in South Africa. That summer also featured the Gold Cup, the North American championship held every two years. While the Americans sent their first team to South Africa, they played a reserve unit on home soil in the Gold Cup. The reserves played very well, making it all the way to the final against Mexico. Even through halftime, the championship remained tied at 0.

Then the wheels came off for the Americans. Mexico, who played first teamers like Gio Dos Santos and Gerardo Terrado, scored 5 goals in the second half. The U.S. line up featured Jay Heaps and Brian Ching, players who would not make the 2010 World Cup squad.

If we do not include games from the 2009 Gold Cup, the United States and Mexico are ranked 18th and 19th respectively. Clearly, better rankings would account for situations in which one team doesn’t play their first team. For now, we’re treating all international matches the same.

Who is the best team in Europe?

Spain and the Netherlands are 2nd and 3rd in the rankings, separated by less than a hundredth of a goal. Essentially, our algorithm does not make a distinction between these two teams. The finals of Euro 2012 could quite possibly be a rematch of the World Cup final two years ago.

Next week, we’ll reveal the full rankings and discuss how to use our algorithm to project the entire bracket for Euro 2012. If you’re interested in this, please follow The Power Rank on Twitter.

What do you think?

We would love to hear from you. Are there other games like the 2009 Gold Cup final in which one team didn’t play their first team? How necessary is it to include friendly matches in these rankings? Please leave us a comment.

Thanks for reading.