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How Ireland Could Have Beaten The System And Earned An Easier Playoff Draw

How Ireland Could Have Beaten The System And Earned An Easier Playoff Draw
By Gavin Cooney
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Cast your mind back just over a week, when we were still bumbling about in a haze of permutation. Ireland needed a favour from somewhere to thrust fate into their own hands in Cardiff, but we just weren't from where it would come. Irish fans, therefore, spent a head-scratching weekend lurching between support for Scotland, England, Belgium, Greece, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Slovenia. In the end, it was Scotland who did us a favour. (As they usually do).

Today, things are far more straightforward. The win in Cardiff earned Ireland a spot in the playoff draw tomorrow, and we will definitely face one of the following four opponents: Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, or Croatia.

The reason for this is that those four sides are the highest-ranked sides in the playoff draw (per the FIFA rankings), so, therefore, they will be rewarded for this by being drawn against one of the four lowest-ranked, Ireland among them.

Ireland are guaranteed a difficult draw (by degrees) but it could have been different. What if we told you that it could have been different? That Ireland could have been seeded and be saddling up for an easier playoff, had they manipulated a flawed system?

It is at this stage we are glad to give you what you now really want, after days of head-melting permutations.


We're going to work backward in a way, here, and give you our deduction and then show our workings.


But here is the conclusion:

Ireland would be seeded for the 2018 World Cup playoffs if we didn't play any friendly matches over the last four years. 

Wait, you mean those largely pointless games with O'Man cost us? How does this all work? 

The process of awarding nations FIFA ranking points is flawed.


In short, FIFA's ranking points is geared toward rewarding sides for playing and winning matches. The more important the game, and the higher-ranked your opposition, the more points you are awarded for a win or a draw. (Defeat always means zero).

There's a problem, however. Ranking points are calculated on average, rather than a total figure for the year, so as not to privilege nations playing more games. This becomes an issue when taken in conjunction with the type of game being played. More points are on offer depending on the importance of the game.

The points on offer in a World Cup game, for example, are multiplied by 4. Ranking points for games in continental competitions like the Euros and the Copa America are multiplied by 3, as are games in the Confederations Cup. (We're not sure why, either). Qualifiers earn a multiplier of 2.5.


But here's the rub: friendly matches earn a multiplier of 1. That means that the winning of a series of friendly matches will earn you very few ranking points, but playing them - and not winning - has a disproportionate effect on a nation's average world ranking points, and therefore their position in the FIFA World Rankings.

Therefore, if a nation wants to rise through the ranks and earn a high seeding for competition draws in the future, they are better off avoiding playing friendlies entirely.

Are Balls.ie the first to figure this out? 

Well....no. The reason Ireland drew Wales as the top seed in our World Cup qualifying group is partly as a result of their realising how to beat the system. Before the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup, Wales were ranked 113th in the world. Today, they are 14th.


This remarkable rise is partly to do with their Euro 2016 performance, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that they went 17 months without playing a friendly game after playing Holland in June 2014. Added to that, they haven't played one since a pre-Euro 2016 defeat to Sweden.

So Ireland would be better off without playing international friendlies? 


There are plenty of benefits to friendly matches: they are a source of income to the FAI, they allow a wider breadth of fans to see the national team play, and there are obvious advantages for Martin O'Neill to test new players and try new combinations and formations. But if the sole ambition is to rise in world rankings and earn easier draws in qualifying, playoffs, and potentially tournaments, then eschewing friendlies altogether is the best way to do it.

It is possible, as FIFA don't stipulate that a nation must play a minimum number of friendly matches each year. They merely want countries to play at least five games a year. (If they fail to do that, their ranking points for that year are divided by five).


Okay, okay, but I was promised permutations. Where are my permutations? 

This writer is in need of a hobby has calculated all of the ranking points earned by Ireland in matches across the last four years, meaning we can play around with the scenarios a bit.

But had Ireland not played any friendly games in the last four years, our average ranking points would total 1,101 points, putting us 13th in the world rankings, sandwiched between England and Colombia. We'd also be ahead of Italy, Croatia, and Denmark, and therefore guaranteed to draw either Denmark, Greece, Northern Ireland, or Sweden.

So, an obvious question, what if we had never played Oman? 

We all realise how much our friendly matches against Oman mean to you, so we're happy to report that not playing them would not have any effect on our seeding for this playoff draw. If you take out the two games with Oman that affect this month's rankings, Ireland would have 873 points, meaning we would only move up one single place in the rankings and remain unseeded for tomorrow's draw.


So cheers, Oman. Irrelevant to the very end.

What if we swerved all friendlies during a qualifying campaign? 

This is similar to what Wales have done. They played four friendlies between the end of their qualification campaign for Euro 2016 and the tournament itself, and didn't play any during that qualification campaign, nor did they during their (failed, did we mention that?) World Cup 2018 campaign.

Were we to have done that, it would remove friendly games against Iceland, Mexico, Uruguay, USA, and England.

Taking those games out would have given us a total of 996 points, which would actually have seen us up to 20th in the world. Still, however, unseeded, trailing those pesky Danes by a measly five points.

What if we didn't bother playing friendlies against sides ranked above us? 

John Delaney's Choice: the higher-ranked the opposition, the easier it is to sell tickets and perhaps the more beneficial the game. The trade off is the more likely these games are to do damage to our world ranking.

In the last four years, Ireland have played twelve of their seventeen friendlies against sides higher in the world rankings: Iceland, Mexico, Uruguay, Holland, Slovakia, Switzerland, England, USA, Portugal, Costa Rica, Turkey, and Serbia. Had these games not taken place, Ireland would currently have a total of 1,046 points, which would put us seventeenth in the world and, therefore, seeded. It's important to note that in this scenario, Ireland simply aren't bothering playing anyone.

Had these games been replaced with twelve friendlies against Oman, our total would be much lower.

What if we only played sides ranked above us? 

Had we played the above games, and not bothered with games against Oman (twice), Latvia, Poland, and Belarus, Ireland would have a total of 895 points, so well off the pace in terms of playoff seeding.

This proves that it's really not worth playing lower-ranked nations in friendly games: the meagre return points-wise does not offset the diminishing of the total for the year, given the fact that these games dilute your average total.

So if you are seeking solely to boost your world ranking, it is better to play higher-ranked sides and avoid defeat.

It is best, however, to not play anyone at all.

See Also: FIFA Confirm Seeding And Potential Playoff Opponents For Ireland



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