A follower of one other sport may learn tributes to the retiring Eden Hazard this week and query why what appears like his most salient achievement was omitted.
There have been mentions of the good targets, the league titles and the participant of the yr awards, however barely a nod to him taking Belgium to the highest of the world.
Hazard was his nation’s captain between 2015 and 2022. And in the direction of the top of that interval, between October 2018 and February 2022, Belgium topped the FIFA World Rankings for greater than three years.
Not solely had been Belgium ranked first, their prolonged stint on the prime — prolonged, in equity, as a result of fewer worldwide video games had been performed throughout that point as a result of COVID-19 pandemic — means solely Brazil and Spain have spent longer because the highest-ranked nation because the rankings had been launched in 1992.
To a fan of tennis, golf or snooker, for instance, being ranked first on the earth is an enormous deal.
Belgium’s rating wasn’t all about Hazard and the idea of a captain doesn’t have a lot which means in soccer. However the sensible purpose nobody talked about Belgium’s standing as world No 1 is way easier: nobody in soccer cares in regards to the rankings.
And that is one thing to be celebrated.
Why do they exist?
Let’s begin with the fundamentals — why do we want FIFA rankings?
Properly, earlier than the rankings had been launched, the system of seedings at a World Cup was considerably farcical. For many tournaments up till World Cup 1970, FIFA determined which groups needs to be seeded.
In 1970, there have been no official seeds, and FIFA shaped 4 pots of sides based mostly on who it didn’t wish to face each other (Israel and Morocco, specifically).
On the 1974 World Cup, there was a personal vote on which sides could be seeded. For the subsequent few tournaments, the organising committee at the very least made that session public.
It was solely from 1990 onwards that precise empirical outcomes — performances at current World Cups — had been considered. However that successfully discriminated in opposition to rising nations, so from 1998 (the rankings had been thought-about too new to have a lot which means in 1994), FIFA may consider official rankings when deciding on of seeds.
So whereas the exact rankings system stays one thing of a thriller to even the keenest soccer followers, it’s price reiterating that the FIFA rankings do serve a goal. If the choice is FIFA executives merely deciding on seedings amongst themselves, it’s most likely price having official rankings.
Why does nobody actually care?
Properly, the issue in soccer is that worldwide sides solely play a couple of dozen matches a yr. A few of these will pit world-beaters in opposition to minnows, and others can be non-competitive matches, so there isn’t a lot info to issue into the rankings.
The exact algorithm used to calculate the rankings has been criticised and subsequently overhauled a number of occasions: in 1999, 2006 and most notably, 2018, after complaints that numerous sides — notably Switzerland and Poland — had been attempting to sport the system by limiting the variety of friendlies they performed.
That’s completely different from a sport like tennis or golf, the place one of the best on the earth often take part in the identical tournaments and compete immediately in opposition to each other. There, a good rating system is significantly simpler to formulate.
Why is that this good?
That is good as a result of there’s no stress between match outcomes and world rating, which is typically the case in different sports activities.
In April 2009, Dinara Safina grew to become the No 1 ranked tennis participant regardless of having by no means gained one of many 4 Grand Slam tournaments, which prompted a debate.
“It’s an incredible honour to succeed in the No 1 rating and it’s a dream that each woman who has ever wished to play skilled tennis shares,“ Safina stated.
First, you query whether or not that could be a) true or b) fascinating. Ought to gamers develop up dreaming of being ranked first, quite than profitable one thing? Curiously, Carlos Alcaraz did the identical final yr, albeit as a Grand Slam champion. “It’s a dream come true being No 1 on the earth,” he stated.
Safina’s rating prompted a backlash, together with from Serena Williams, who had gained the earlier two Grand Slam titles when Safina first grew to become No 1. After profitable Wimbledon in July 2009, Williams was requested about her degree of motivation to regain prime spot.
“For those who win three Grand Slam titles (in a yr) try to be No 1 — however (that’s not the scenario) within the WTA tour,” she stated. “However possibly my motivation is to win one other Grand Slam and keep No 2, I suppose?
“Dinara did an incredible job to get to No 1 — she gained (the much less prestigious) Rome and Madrid,” she continued, earlier than bursting into laughter. It was someplace between a dig on the rating system, and a dig at Safina.
It seemingly affected Safina, who was continually requested when she was going to win a Grand Slam. She by no means did.
“I felt silly saying I used to be world No 1,” Safina confessed a few years later.
In 2011, in snooker, Ronnie O’Sullivan complained that he felt ‘blackmailed’ to compete in smaller tournaments due to the rankings factors on supply. “They put these rating occasions on and the winner’s prize will not be nice,” he complained.
“Most gamers are going there and dropping cash, however they’re placing rating factors on so it’s forcing the gamers to play in it, which isn’t nice, however what do you do? You need to go.”
At that time, O’Sullivan was ranked No 12 on the earth. He gained the subsequent two World Championships, however due to underperformance or absence at much less prestigious occasions, was not ranked No 1 throughout that interval.
In golf, two Englishmen, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, have been ranked No 1 with out profitable a serious. However tennis stays the higher sport for comparability, notably now gamers obtain a trophy for being ranked first on the earth, which looks as if overkill.
Curiously, Andy Murray as soon as stated that he obtained extra congratulatory messages from fellow gamers when he first topped the rankings than he did after any of his match victories. That implies skilled tennis gamers acknowledge the rankings rewarding consistency over a yr, nearly (to make use of soccer phrases) like it’s the league desk, and the Grand Slams are extra like cup competitions.
Tennis launched rating factors, in 1973, for primarily the identical causes as soccer did a few many years later — to create goal entry standards for tournaments, quite than leaving it solely within the palms of the organisers of every match. Over time, although, it’s turn out to be a contest in itself.
However sporting success shouldn’t be judged on algorithms, on complicated rating factors totted up in minor occasions on the expense of doing it on the best stage. It needs to be judged upon who wins the majors, the Slams, the World Championship, and settled on the pitch — not on spreadsheets.
And in soccer, there is no such thing as a stress, not even the remotest debate about this. The rankings serve their goal. They measure long-term progress, they assist determine seedings, however being ranked No 1 will not be, in itself, one thing to aspire to.
And that’s precisely the way it needs to be.
(High picture: VI Pictures by way of Getty Pictures)
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- No person actually cares in regards to the FIFA World Rankings – that’s an excellent factor
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