Do FIFA Rankings Mean Anything?

Posted on Oct 22, 2018


FIFA was founded in 1904 to oversee international competitions by the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, FIFA considers itself to be the international governing body for association football, futsal, and beach soccer. While not in control over the rules of the game of football (soccer), FIFA is responsible for the organization and promotion of a number of tournament - most important of which is the World Cup.

Today, FIFA is composed of 211 member nations divided into six geographic confederations that roughly correspond to the six populated continents:

  • AFC - Asia Football Confederation
  • CAF - Confederation Africaine de Football
  • CONCACAF - Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football
  • CONMEBOL - Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol
  • OFC - Oceania Footbal Confederation
  • UEFA - Union of European Football Associations

Research Questions:

  1. How do the confederations rank when considering their member nations?
  2. Which nations have performed consistently well since 1993?
  3. Which nations within each confederation have performed consistently well?
  4. Which nations have improved (or worsened) since 1993?
  5. Can you predict performance from rankings?


A data-set containing the FIFA rankings from August 8, 1993 to June 7, 2018 was accessed on Kaggle and was used for the visualizations of our Shiny Dashboard.  Taking the data, the first step was to determine last rankings as of June 7, 2018.  Using this data, a histogram was created that showed the rankings of every single national member of FIFA organized by point total and differentiated using color by confederation.  Subsequently, separate point total histograms were created for each confederation.

Next, the confederations were compared to each other using box-plots that delineated mean, standard deviation, and range for total points and rankings.  Lastly, each nation was individually charted using a line graph and organized by confederation to compare and contrast how nations perform from 1993 to 2018.


  • Only eight nations have ever ranked #1 in the FIFA rankings: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, France, Germany (including as West Germany), the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. Of these nations, only Belgium (placed third in 2018) and the Netherlands (reached three finals) have failed to win the World Cup.
  • Minus Belgium and the Netherlands, these six nations have won eighteen of the twenty-one World Cups and eight of the ten Confederations Cups every played.  The only three World Cups not won by these six nations were won by England (1966) and Uruguay (1930, 1950).
  • France, Germany (including as West Germany), the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain account for ten of the fifteen European Championships played.

  • While the highest ranked nation in the June 27, 2018 rankings is from Europe (Germany), South America ranks higher on average.
  • UEFA's average ranking and points is heavily skewed by a number of smaller, outlier nations, including micro-states such as San Marino and Liechtenstein.
  • CONCACAF is bottom heavy because of the smaller island nations of the Caribbean.
  • OFC is by far the weakest confederation with New Zealand the only nation that has ever ranked higher than 50.
  • Outside of the traditional European and South America footballing powers, most of the confederations have been dominated by a handful of countries:
    • Asia has been dominated by Australia, Iran, Japan, and South Korea.
    • Africa has been dominated by North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia) and West Africa (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal).
    • CONCACAF has been dominated by Mexico and the United States.
    • New Zealand is the only Oceania country to have done well.
    • The smaller nations of the world, especially the island nations perform abysmally.
  • General Trends:
    • Kuwait, Singapore and Thailand have dropped precipitously.
    • Cape Verde is on the rise, while Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have fallen.
    • Costa Rica is on the rise in North America, rising above the United States.
    • Peru and Chile are on the rise in South America.
    • The nations that formerly made up Yugoslavia have all done well as independent teams.
    • Below rank 100, the rankings are extremely volatile as a win, a loss, or a draw can mean dramatic changes in rank.

Future Analysis:

In the near future, I plan on digging deeper by analyzing how performances in major tournaments impact rankings and vice versa using ranking data from before and after a tournament.  From this analysis I hope to create a tool capable of predicting tournament results.  However, from the latest 2018 World Cup results and the inability of the tool to assess data outside of the cold hard numbers of FIFA rankings, the likely result will be something wholly unusable for actual use.

About Author


YiYang Cao

A data scientist with an extensive background in analyzing the impact of international events upon economics, law, and politics. A problem solver, possessing solid skills in R, Python, machine learning, and neural networks, eager to reveal useful insights...
View all posts by YiYang Cao >

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