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Lincoln, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom
Senior news reporter at the Grimsby Telegraph, UEA History graduate, former BBC Kick Off sports reporter & Lincoln City fan.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

England fourth best side in the world? Sounds about right

Written by Matt Scrafton.

England moved up to fourth place in the updated FIFA rankings, rising above Netherlands and Brazil while remaining above the likes of France, Portugal, Italy and Argentina.

Their 'par-for-the-course' display at Euro 2012 saw them equal their best ever position, which had been achieved twice before back in 1997 and 2006.

As usual there's been a knee-jerk response to the news, mostly including howls of derision mocking Roy Hodgson's side for being so high up on the 'list' despite being outplayed by Italy during the Quarter-final game that the 'Three Lions' eventually lost on penalties.

A game, which should be noted, England actually drew after 120 minutes, meaning they were awarded the same amount of points as they would have gained from a regulation draw.

Such pillars of football like Gary Lineker have waded into the debate, declaring:

“New Fifa rankings have England 4th, ahead of Portugal, Holland, Argentina, Brazil, Italy etc. Just knew we were brilliant”

“What kind of ranking puts a country 4th when they have only contested 2 semi-finals in over 40 years? #priceless”

“It's down to Fifa opponent strength multiplier: eg if you play against a team ranked 8th..200-8 over 100 = 1.92 etc. #priceless"

“If you have a spare week, check out how Fifa world rankings work. It's hilarious! And it was apparently simplified in 2006”

Subtle mocking by Lineker there, but it's interesting to note he offers no alternative? I don't think anyone has ever declared the ranking system is faultless, but is that even possible to achieve?

For example, Brazil have slumped to 11th place - which can mostly be put down to not playing any competitive internationals due to hosting the upcoming World Cup in 2014. How could their drop be avoided?

And what does England's performances from 40 years ago have anything to do with it? By that logic, should Uruguay still be top of the rankings due to their World Cup wins in 1930 and 1950? In fact, they're currently third, and deservedly so too thanks to a mightily impressive past few years which saw them lift the Copa America in 2011, while finishing fourth at the last World Cup and on course to qualify for the next one.

The current BBC Match of the Day presenter isn't the only one to have concerns though. Judging by certain comments on Twitter, you'd think Sepp Blatter hand picked the rankings himself. Ugh, did I just defend SEPP BLATTER!?

BBC presenter Gary Lineker mocked England's position in the latest rankings on Twitter
But in all seriousness, why exactly are the rankings so [allegedly] incorrect? Agreeing with Lineker, most seem to think sides like Netherlands, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and Italy are superior and this deserves to be represented in the rankings.

For starters, that's a subjective opinion. I think Chelsea are a better side than Newcastle but they didn't finish above them last season, did they? But I'll play along for now and take a look at why those said nations are behind us.

Netherlands had a horrific tournament and deservedly fell in the rankings after being defeated in all three of their group games – at the hands of Portugal, Denmark and Germany. Nevertheless, they remain in the top 10 – eighth in fact, dropping only four places.

Portugal had a more impressive tournament that England, going one stage further and reaching the semi-finals before being knocked out by the eventual winners Spain. However, they struggled in the qualifiers, as they have tended to do a lot in recent history, going through in a play-off against Boznia & Herzegovina before suffering a friendly defeat to Turkey, after drawing to Poland and Macedonia.

England's friendly wins against Norway and Belgium certainly weren't spectacular, but they were wins all the same and brought in more points for Hodgson's side. Still, I fully expect Portugal to move ahead of England within the next year or so as Paulo Bento seems to have struck a chord within his youthful squad.

Then we have Argentina, the side that seemingly have all the attacking ability in the world yet still fails to produce top class defenders (Fabricio Coloccini aside, of course). They've been fairly underwhelming with their recent results, losing to Venezuela in a World Cup qualifying match, and are only third in the group at the moment behind Uruguay and Chile.

They were also well under-par during the 2011 Copa America, suffering disappointing draws with Bolivia and Colombia before succumbing to winners Uruguay in the quarter-finals. And who can forget the 4-0 demolition they suffered to Germany at the 2010 World Cup? They remain in seventh place, and they can have few complaints.

Their South-American counterparts, Brazil, move out of the top 10 to their lowest ever position of 11th. As alluded to, as the next hosts of the World Cup they've not had a great deal of football to play. In fact, since they were knocked out by Paraguay at the Copa America, they've played 13 friendlies. Despite winning nine of those, a win for an international friendly doesn't produce the same amount of points that you would gain for a competitive game, so they've had little chance to gain a substantial amount of points.

For those of you interested, there's a 1.5 difference in weighting between friendly matches and qualifiers, hence Brazil's recent slump. Added to that, there's a difference of 0.5 between qualifiers and continental cup games (Euro 2012, in this instance), which explains why a number of European sides remain ahead of them – even if some of them didn't perform that well.

As for Italy, the Euro 2012 finalists, they made a relatively meteoric rise up the rankings to where they now sit sixth, six places ahead of where they were placed before the tournament.

Prior to Euro 2012, the Italians were comfortable enough in escaping their qualifying group, but with Estonia, Serbia and Slovenia their closest rivals, they never faced much opposition. However, they struggled in the lead-up to the European Championships, suffering friendly defeats to Uruguay, United States and Russia.

Italy suffered a 4-0 defeat in the Euro 2012 final, but have risen up the rankings as a result
France, of course, have had a troublesome last few years. Raymond Domenech left Laurent Blanc a side riddled in controversy and bruised egos, having failed to escape the group stage at the 2010 World Cup, which saw Les Bleus tumble down the rankings to 27th. They qualified for Euro 2012 in an unspectacular fashion, edging out Bosnia by one point, before unconvincingly escaping the group at the tournament in Ukraine & Poland before being outplayed by Spain.

So now we can see why England are placed where they are. The manner of their performances at Euro 2012 are totally irrelevant, they secured two wins and technically drew twice. With Moldova, Ukraine, San Marino and Poland up next for the national side in the World Cup qualifiers, be prepared to see England remain in the top five too. Although they do face Italy in a friendly in August...

It's important I make it clear that I'm not hailing England as a great side that are far superior to several of the teams mentioned in this blog. But apart from a blip in the lead-up to Euro 2008, England nearly always qualify for major tournaments without much trouble, and consistently escape the group stages.

This isn't a comment on how England play their game, and certainly isn't a justification for our style of football and our lack of ability to keep the ball. There are changes that need to be made if England are to enjoy real success on the international stage. Heck, even to maintain their fourth place in the rankings they'll need to step it up.

But as usual, England's departure was scrutinised to the umpteenth degree, people analysing every single inch of our national game to explore the reasons for our apparent poor performance. Before we all become too self-involved, I think it's important to find some realism. We're not that bad, in fact in recent history we've consistently been a top side.

Just those damn penalties...