World Cup ranks as a huge challenge

Officially, Australia has the hardest task of any country to get through the group stage at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Officially, Australia has the hardest task of any country to get through the group stage at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

While the February 2014 FIFA rankings showed that the Socceroos were no longer the lowest-ranked country of all 2014 World Cup teams – Korea Republic (61st) dropping below Australia (53rd) for the first time in months – the calibre of World Cup group opponents is higher for Australia compared to Korea’s.

Up against Spain (ranked 1st in February 2014), Netherlands (10th) and Chile (16th) in Group B, the average difference in ranking between Australia and each of these three countries (44.7) is the highest of any World Cup team.

Korea’s group opponents are Belgium (11th), Russia (22nd) and Algeria (26th), meaning the average ranking difference between the Koreans and their first round group adversaries is 41.3 placings higher.

Based on differential rankings against group opponents, the team with the third toughest challenge is another Asian Confederation country Japan, whose opponents Colombia, Greece and Ivory Coast are on average 36.7 ranking places ahead of Nippon.

With other challenges such as long-term injuries to key players, Australia’s expectations for success at Brazil 2014 may well be lower than for any other World Cup to date.

However when it comes to matches involving the Socceroos, the underdog may be the one to fear.
There are plenty of instances of Australia doing one over more fancied opponents over the years.
Before countries were officially ranked by FIFA from 1993, Australia’s two most impressive upset victories both took place in 1988, under Frank Arok.

At the Bicentennial Gold Cup, Australia thrashed reigning world champions Argentina 4-1 at the Sydney Football Stadium. Later that year at the 1988 Olympics in Korea, a Frank Farina goal led to a 1-0 win by the Socceroos over Yugoslavia in a result not predicted by any expert.
Since FIFA introduced rankings of senior men’s teams in 1993, we can now put results in a statistical perspective.

While FIFA rankings have caused much debate over the years, one can’t argue with the basic premise behind them: that a winning team is worth more ranking points than a losing team; that a win over a harder opponent is worth more than one over an easy opponent; and that a win in an official competition is worth more than in a friendly.

Australia’s ranking each month – and of our opponents – reflects how our match results fared in the years leading up to that ranking month, with more weighting given to more recent games.
Since 1993 Australia has played teams ranked in the world’s top five at the time in 13 matches, for 4 wins, 4 losses and 5 draws.

That’s an even win/loss ratio against top five opposition. And just three of these 13 matches were played on home soil.

As to which match was statistically Australia’s best result – well it depends on what factors you want to take into account.

Based purely on opposition rankings, the 1-0 group stage win against France at the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup is the only time Australia defeated a number 1 ranked nation at the time. Coached by Frank Farina, and with goal scored by Clayton Zane, this match is deemed Australia’s best result over the past 20 years; and quite possibly ever.

It’s interesting to note that two more current A-League coaches started in Korea that day, Tony Popovic and Kevin Muscat.

Just a week later in the Confeds Cup third-place play-off, a 1-0 win by the Socceroos over the world’s number 2 ranked nation at the time Brazil showed that the France result was no fluke.
Ranked 68 at the time, Australia defeated teams ranked 67 and 66 places higher in the space of eight days.

(At the other end of the scale, Australia’s worst loss was against the Kiwis in the 1998 Oceania Nations Cup final, New Zealand’s ranking was 131 at the time. The Socceroos have never lost to a lower-ranked opponent.)

When we consider Australia’s ranking at the time, the Socceroos’ 2-1 win over Paraguay in Melbourne in June 2000 was the most impressive. Ranked 75 places behind Paraguay, this is the highest negative difference between rankings for an Australian win. However this was a home match, and a friendly, so I doubt anyone would realistically put this result above the 2001 Confederations Cup wins Australia’s most notable victory.

Based on ranking of opposition, two other prominent wins occurred in the opponent’s country: Australia defeated Netherlands (ranked 4 at the time) in Eindhoven in 2008, and Germany (ranked 3) in Monchengladbach in 2011. While these matches were ‘only’ friendlies, it’s hard to imagine either European opponent not really going out to win in front of their home fans.

Australia will certainly be up against it in Brazil later this year. But there are plenty of examples in the past where favouritism accounted for nothing come match day. The Socceroos’ results against the world’s highest-ranked countries over the past twenty years reveals a surprisingly good record, and who’s to say this won’t continue in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Follow Andrew Howe-s Aussie football stats updates on Twitter @AndyHowe_statto

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