Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Euro 2012: Easier to win than the World Cup?

Conventional wisdom suggests the European Football Championships are harder to win than the World Cup. There's reason behind this: despite increased familiarity with staff and styles, all teams come from a strong FIFA confederation and this means fewer easy wins and more Groups of Potential Fatality.

We can take a look at the final set of FIFA World Rankings before a tournament to suggest the quality of each field. These rankings are about as foolproof as a Bond villain's plan or FIFA's internal governance, but they are still the best mathematical evaluation available. (Even still, I won't ever believe the United States were ever the fourth-best team in the world). Also, given they are chundered out by computer according to wonderfully complex formulae each month, in theory they are equally uneven.

The table below suggests how powerful each tournament since the start of the millennium has been, using average and median FIFA ranks as a guide. A low average suggests a stronger field, a low median suggests that more of the world's elite teams took part.

Average FIFA rank
Median FIFA rank
Alleged Easybeat
Euro 2000
Slovenia, rank 45
2002 World Cup
China, rank 50
Euro 2004
Latvia, rank 52
2006 World Cup
Togo, rank 61
Euro 2008
Austria, rank 101
2010 World Cup
North Korea, rank 105
Euro 2012
Poland, rank 65

As you can see, the average FIFA rank for the past two World Cups has raised markedly as more nations outside FIFA's top 20 obtained qualification. This of course doesn't take into account home-field advantage, which will surely serve Poland well in this tournament. These numbers are also somewhat swayed: each team wins games in order to qualify, which in turn boosts their world ranking.

According to FIFA's boffins, Euro 2012 could be the strongest tournament since Euro 2000.


  1. Team strength should NEVER be calculated with average or median measurements.

    First of all, team skill level is not distributed evenly. E.g. the difference between teams ranked 1st and 10th is MUCH different than teams ranked 50th and 60th. It's most certainly not a linear relationship.

    Also, lets create a hypothetical group X. Group X has 4 teams - ranked 1st, 2nd, 50th, and 51st. The average ranking of this group is 34 ... but teams 50th and 51st are going to have to play much better than the skill level of 34th to progress through the group.

    The Euros are "easier" to win than a World Cup because it's a shorter competition. The shorter the competition, the more statistical variation in results. The shorter the competition, the easier it is to "get lucky".

    It takes no genius to conclude that a weaker team is considerably more likely to win a 1-game series against a stronger opponent than a 7-game series. This same principal applies to knockout soccer competitions.

    1. Devin - you make good points and I agree with you.

      To suggest simple average/median numbers tell the full story would be farcical. However, I'd argue these figures have their place, probably as a set to be proved/disproved rather than the be-all and end-all. Despite an admittedly rubbish final statement, these numbers were aimed to provide some background context rather than a full "solution" (which I accept makes the last statement rather redundant!).