The current FIFA world rankings claim Belgium is the best team on the planet. Belgium! A country which has only been to one to World Cup quarter-final, albeit in 2014.
They have been as far the final in the European Championships but that was back in 1980, when they lost to West Germany. It’s so long ago there was two Germanys. Look it up youngsters. Since that final appearance they’ve only qualified for two further Euro Championships, not making it past the group stage on either occasion.
The best team in the world you say? Oh FIFA, what ever will we do with you?
So having undermined the integrity of their ranking system, let’s see how helpful said rankings are in predicting how this week’s European Championship qualifiers will pan out.
Going back to Ireland’s qualifier against the Netherlands in 1995 the higher ranked team has triumphed in 10 of the 14 European Championship play-off match-ups.
The biggest rankings turnover was in 2004 when 69th ranked Latvia gave 8th ranked Turkey a good licking. Well they edged the two legs 3-2.
This is Ireland’s fourth appearance in a Euro play-off. They lost to the Netherlands in 1995 when they were the underdogs, outranked 10 to 21 according to FIFA. They lost again to Turkey on away-goals in 1999 despite being the marginally higher-ranked side, 35 to 37. Third time was the charm in 2011 when the 25th ranked Ireland cruised past 59th ranked Estonia thanks to a 4-0 away win in the opening leg.
A World of Difference
Too small a pool of examples? Let’s expand things to include UEFA World Cup play-off matches.
Going back to the 1998 World Cup play-offs the higher ranked team at the time of the first match has qualified 13 times out of 20. It’s better than a 50-50 shot but not by enough to make for some easy betting options.
Again Ireland have been on all sides of the equation. In 1997 they lost to a Belgium side ranked five places below them. In 2001 They beat an Iran team ranked 15 places below them and in 2009 Thierry Henry robbed a nation of their rightful place…I mean Ireland lost out to a France side 29 places higher in FIFA’s estimation.
Although there have been more ranking reversals in UEFA World Cup cup play-offs the biggest underdog to come good was in 2005 when Switzerland (36) beat Turkey (11) on away goals.
Here are the current rankings for the teams involved in this week’s Euro 2016 play-offs:
Norway (46) v Hungary (33)
Bosnia & Herzegovinia (30) v Republic of Ireland (54)
Ukraine (28) v Slovenia (64)
Sweden (45) v Denmark (35)
The stats say your best bet is to go with the higher ranked team. 10 times out of 14 the team FIFA has deemed superior have triumphed over the course of two legs in European Championship play-offs. However it’s far from conclusive. If the averages hold at least one of the higher ranked teams will be turned over by the end of these play-offs, lets just hope that team is Bosnia & Herzegovina.