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Saturday October 13 2018
Italy must play the rankings game

The Azzurri have never taken friendly matches particularly seriously, but Gaby McKay says that has to change.

Earlier this year, for the first time in the nation’s illustrious football history, Italy fell outside of the top 20 teams on FIFA’s world rankings.

For a nation which has won the World Cup four times in history, second only to Brazil, it was quite the ignominious fall, if not a surprising one. Giampiero Ventura’s side failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, losing to Sweden in a play-off, meaning the Italians were at home for the first time since 1958.

Then FIGC President Carlo Tavecchio had said such a scenario would be “the apocalypse”, but it was Apocalypse Now on that fateful night at San Siro as the Nazionale failed to overcome a 1-0 defeat to the Scandinavian nation.

The post-apocalyptic wasteland of Italian football there has been much soul searching over how and why the Azzurri could fail so badly. Ventura rightly took his share of the blame for failing to deploy Jorginho throughout the qualifying campaign, and for leaving Lorenzo Insigne on the bench at San Siro.

Tavecchio and company were hounded for replacing Antonio Conte with the veteran Coach, who had a solid but unspectacular career at club level. Others put the blame on too many foreign players, a lack of consistent coaching, or the ‘Juventus bloc’ of veterans in the squad.

What received less scrutiny was the reason Italy had to go through the play-offs in the first place.

The primary reason, of course, is that they had finished second behind Spain in their qualifying group, with Ventura bizarrely deciding to play a 4-2-4 away to the best passing side in international football. Surprisingly that didn’t work, with La Roja easily running out as 3-0 winners and effectively dooming the Azzurri the play-offs. Given that Conte’s side had beaten the Spanish at Euro 2016, the decline in just over 12 months was startling.

The aspect which wasn’t much examined though was how two European heavyweights ended up in the same group in the first place. Italy had been seeded 17th for the initial draw, and therefore placed into Pot 2, while the Spanish were 12th in Pot 1.

Ranked above Spain were teams like Romania and Wales, while Euro 2016 finalists France - who would go on to win the World Cup - were seeded below Italy in Pot 2. Other sides ranked above Les Bleus included Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The reason for that discrepancy was a clever manipulation of the FIFA world rankings by some of the traditionally weaker sides. Until July 30 this year, the rankings were calculated using an weighted average score over a five-year period, with competitive games worth significantly more in terms of points and recent results counting for more than results five years ago.

That meant that, by definition, playing an international friendly match could only drag down a nation’s average score, even if they won. Winning a Euro 2016 qualifier was worth 2.5 points, whereas winning a friendly earned only one. As a result, playing and winning both a qualifier and a friendly over one international break would earn 1.75 points, whereas playing only the qualifier would earn the full 2.5. Italy tend not to win friendlies - of which more later - so this was particularly impactful for the Azzurri.

From August 2011 to June 2016, Wales played 14 friendlies. Across roughly the same period, Italy played 27. A nation only has to play five matches per year to keep its points, something which is easily achieved in qualification, so simply by not playing friendly matches a nation could manipulate the rankings and earn more favourable draws.

Poland didn’t play a single friendly between a 1-1 draw with Slovenia in November 2016 and a 0-0 with Uruguay almost 12 months later. The result? They rose to sixth in the world rankings are were given a top seeding at the World Cup. That they finished bottom of their group when they were notionally the best team in it shows how the rankings could be manipulated.

There was no cheating involved - and, indeed, many Italians could smile ruefully at the Machiavellian gaming of the system - but FIFA realised that something had to be done. In August, after the World Cup, they adopted a new system which relies on adding or subtracting points based on the result of a match, rather than calculating an average.

While competitive internationals still carry more weight than friendlies, a nation can no longer rise up the rankings simply by avoiding playing. In theory and over time that should solve one of Italy’s problems, but it raises another issue: the Azzurri do not perform in friendlies.

In their last 29 friendly internationals, dating back to May of 2013, Italy have won nine. One of those, an 8-0 win over San Marino, wasn’t even an officially recognised game and thus had no impact on the rankings. Of the eight remaining wins, another was against San Marino and the rest came against the Netherlands - twice - Albania, Scotland, Finland, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia.

Under the previous system, simply playing in friendlies was a hindrance for Italy, so the fact they barely won any just compounded the issue. If the FIGC had been smarter about the matches the Nazionale played, and the team had put in a bit more effort in the friendlies they did take part in, Italy would never have been in a group with Spain in the first place and may well have made it to Russia.

The new system doesn’t only prevent the smaller - in a footballing sense - nations from gaming the system, it also provides Italy with an opportunity. While friendly results matter less than competitive ones, playing them is no longer penalising and, more importantly, more points are awarded for playing against top nations.

Though the Azzurri failed to qualify for Russia this summer, they remain one of the biggest names in international football. As a result, matches against the other top sides in world football are seen as glamour friendlies and are exactly the kind of fixture Italy tend to play.

Since September 2016, the Azzurri have faced France twice, the Netherlands twice, Germany, Uruguay, Argentina and England. Under the new rankings system, these matches offer a chance to pick up some much needed points.

With Italy currently ranked 20th a win over, for example, France would see Les Blues lose points and Roberto Mancini’s side gain them. Mathematicians can view the formula here, but essentially Italy’s lower ranking and propensity to play the world’s top teams could actually help them.

The introduction of the UEFA Nations League - which Italy also need to start taking seriously - has reduced the number of international friendlies, and most would say that’s no bad thing. However, Italy cannot afford to neglect their world ranking any longer, and that means turning up in friendlies.

It’s understandable that Mancini would want to experiment to find the right team and system, but if he doesn’t start getting results in matches like the friendly with the U.S.A next month then Italy will pay the price in harder qualification groups and lower seedings at tournaments.

Have your say...
Viktor for the first time in years i actually agree with you.
on the 15th October, 2018 at 7:33am
CUTRONE. How hard can it be.
on the 14th October, 2018 at 6:15pm
mancini, i would not be in his place! to carry on and build a team to be among the elite and do well in competitions is not easy especially not in this atmosphere of italian football! only few are helping the national team to clean the dust out from where it started 2008! it is obvious that few are only interested to invest in italian young talents, greedy club owners don't want to either! all they care about is to win at any cost, however it is costing heavy on paying millions for non-italians!
on the 14th October, 2018 at 11:00am
saw the game holland x germany; i must say holland impressed me, and i am afraid that italy must learn from holland to trust on their young talents by letting them play regularly at their respective clubs. however, looking at the perspective of italian football especially the club owners in addition that figc has no president or there is no council to look after the football issues in general, the victim in this whole mess is the azzurri. italian football must step up to the occassion!
on the 14th October, 2018 at 10:52am
Momo...... 1000%. Well said.
on the 14th October, 2018 at 6:45am
Mancini need some time to prove.Biggest problem is scoring goals though forward line has improved significantly in last game in terms of shots on target.The real problem I could see in wing back-Criscito,Biraghi are below average players.Hopefully Serie A teams will give more time to youth to play and rebuild starts. Forza Azzuri!
on the 14th October, 2018 at 3:19am
Another good blog, I agree with 'score' there is no chemistry or understanding in this team. However I think the blog strikes a heart of this conundrum. We need to gel quicker and before it has a wider impact upon seeding for future competitions. I'm not a huge Mancini fan but I think this is his hardest task yet as somehow he needs to gel one of the worst Italy teams to perform above there individual ability. Much the way Ranieri did a Leicester.
on the 13th October, 2018 at 7:43pm
There's no reason why this line-up can't do well once they gel ...my only doubt is Criscito

Donnarumma; Florenzi, Bonucci, Chiellini, Criscito; Verratti, Jorginho, Pellegrini; Bernardeschi, Insigne, Chiesa
on the 13th October, 2018 at 5:23pm
Italy with that current team,players,must not play the ranking game.Simply must not play, close the door, invest in youth, academies,control those money hungry club owners who buy some players for millions and then cannot adapt to Italian football instead of having the balls to play italian youngsters, and make proper stadia to get the masses interested again.Then in years to come Italy will be back like Spain and Germany.Other than that I am tired of talk and no action...nuff said!!!!
on the 13th October, 2018 at 11:42am
what ranking game and Azzurri is ranked 20th in FIFA rankings and perhaps Italy might plunge to anywhere from 25-30! What Mancini or anyone would do when the system itself is very weak! Italian football is badly in need of discipline & infrastructure from top to down.
on the 13th October, 2018 at 10:58am
I see a draw with Poland, as yet the team is building up as there is no chemistry / full understanding with the team overall. It won't be a complete disaster if Italy did not do good at this Nations League, as Azzurri needs more time to be more frank. The most problematic thing is the score, Azzurri is not scoring enough goals to win games! Azzurri does not have a quality player to score goals yet! There is no creativity and the identity is lost somewhere! Is Azzurri in crisis? yes indeed.
on the 13th October, 2018 at 10:41am

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