When a major tournament rolls around, everyone begins to talk about the coefficient of the teams involved as if it is just understood by everyone. Whilst we all understand the basic theory of it the coefficient and ranking systems being used to outline which the best teams are at any given moment, how many of us actually get how it works? The two biggest organisations in the game of football, UEFA and FIFA, have their own ranking systems that are used for the different tournaments that come under their jurisdiction, such as the World Cup.
UEFA has a national team coefficient, which is used to decide which clubs are ranked where for the likes of the European Championship qualifying and tournament proper, as well as an association coefficient and a club coefficient. The former of those is used to decide things such as how many places a country gets in a tournament like the Champions League, whilst the latter ranks individual clubs in order to to seed them for the competitions that UEFA is in charge of. They work differently, but, in essence, provide the same sort of information for similar reasons.
The best place to start is by looking at the global stage, of which FIFA is the arbiter of what is right. The world rankings that the organisation puts in place is sorted according to a points-based system, which has been revamped numerous times over the years. The version that is used at the time of writing was first put in place in 2018 and makes use of the Elo rating system, which is also used in the likes of chess and Go in order to decide who the best players in the world are at any given moment.
In order to get a sense of how we ended up with the current ranking system, it is worth first looking to the history of it, which starts back in 1992. That was the year that FIFA first published a list of men’s international teams, mainly in order to get a sense of the relative strength of any two teams that are playing each other in the international stage.
The First Calculation Method
Between August 1993 and December 1998, FIFA used a remarkably simplistic formula to decide on the rankings of the teams in the men’s game. Indeed, it was so simplistic that criticism of it was swift, even though it took the organisation several years to attempt to remedy it.
In basic terms, the initial ranking system saw teams that were playing in officially recognised FIFA competitions would be given three points for a win and one for a draw. This was obviously inline with the normal scoring system for a generic league.
FIFA, to give the organisation a slight bit if credit, realised relatively quickly that this way of scoring a team’s rankings failed to take into account the fact that there could be numerous different factors that might influence the outcome of an international match, so a re-think was on the cards.
Things Are Improved
In January of 1999, FIFA confirmed that a revised system would be introduced. The new ranking system was designed to take many of the criticisms that the previous system had faced into account. All matches, as well as the importance of the game and the score, were recorded and used in the calculation of the points that were awarded.
Only the men’s teams were included in the rankings, with women’s and youth teams given ranking systems of their own. These were the major changes that influenced a team’s ranking:
- Points were scaled up by a factor of 10
- Factors such as the number of goals scored / conceded, whether it was a home or an away match, the importance of the match itself and the strength of the relative regions of the teams were taken into account
- The points awarded for wins or draws were no longer fixed
- Even the loser of a match could earn points depending on their performance
Another part of the new system was the introduction of both the Team of the Year and the Best Mover of the Year, which could easily have been called the ‘Most Improved’. The changes made the system more complicated and therefore more accurate.
The 2006 World Cup was to be the last competition using the previous ranking system, with a new one being put in place in the aftermath of it. The method of calculation was simplified once more, with the period of evaluation cut from eight years to four. Neither the number of goals scored nor whether the match was home or away were taken into account with the new ranking system.
Meanwhile, other things, such as how important the match was, were revised. The changes took their lead from the criticisms that had been aimed at the previous ranking system, which many people believed was inaccurate and not responsive enough to the changes in the performance of the teams that it was supposed to evaluate.
The Current Ranking System
FIFA announced in September of 2017 that they were looking to revamp the ranking system, with any changes likely to be put in place after the conclusion of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification process. In the end, the new ranking system was put in place in the wake of the 2018 World Cup proper, with the new-look system modelled after the Elo rating system. One of the biggest chances was the ranking of teams updated after each game that was played.
The weighting system for each of the FIFA confederations was abandoned for the new system, whilst whether the team was home or away and how many goals it won by continued to be ignored. The hope was that the new system would be in place in July, but because no matches were played that month it had to wait until August to be used. When it was eventually released, the following formula was used:
Pseeding = 1600 – (R – 1) x 4,
R was the ranking in June 2018, so if two or more teams had an equal ranking back then, then the following team was given the next possible rank. In other words, if two teams were R=5 then the next team was R=6, rather than R=7. The ratings were then changed after the following game played. This saw some dramatic changes, like previous top rank Germany falling to 15th.
From April 2021, the ranking points of a team have been calculated to two decimal points, as opposed to being rounded to the closest integer.
How It Is Calculated
From the 10th of June 2018, the current calculation method has been in place and is used after every match is played. The formula in the wake of the match is as follows:
P = Pbefore + I (W – We)
Pbefore is the number of points that the team had before the game, whilst I is the importance coefficient. That is worked out as follows:
- 05 – Friendlies played outside the International Match Calendar window
- 10 – Friendlies played inside the International Match Calendar window
- 15 – Nations League group stage match
- 25 – Nations League play-offs and finals
- 35 – Confederations’ games before quarter-final stage
- 40 – Confederations’ quarter-finals and onwards
- 50 – World Cup matches before quarter-finals
- 60 – World Cup matches from quarter-finals onwards
In the rest of the formula, W is the result of the game and We is the expected result of the game. For the results, the following points are awarded:
- 0 – For a loss in normal or extra-time.
- 0.5 – For a draw or a loss thanks to a penalty shootout
- 0.75 – A win in a penalty shootout
- 1 – Win in normal or extra-time
If a game ends in a winner but a penalty shoutout was required, such as in a two-legged tie, the penalty shoutout is ignored and it is considered to be a regular game.
We is calculated as 1 over 10 – dr/600 + 1, where dr is the difference in the ratings of the two teams before the game.
How The Rankings Are Used
FIFA uses the world rankings in order to note the progression and improvement of a team as well as the ability of two teams that are facing each other. Depending on the competition, they are used as either part of the calculation or the entire thinking behind the seeding ahead of a tournament getting underway.
The two awards of the Team of the Year and the Best Mover of the Year are still given out annually, with the rankings used to decide upon the winners. Some national Football Associations, such as the English FA, use the rankings when deciding upon whether or not a player should be given a work permit.
You might wonder why it is that FIFA has rankings and UEFA uses a coefficient. It is an entirely fair question and in point of fact the coefficient is just the series of statistics used by UEFA to decide the rankings and seeding for teams in both club and international competitions that come under UEFA’s auspices. They were first introduced for the men’s game in 1979 and were later used in women’s football and futsal. UEFA has three sets of coefficients that it uses, which are as follows:
For the purposes of this piece we are concentrating on the men’s game, as we did for FIFA. In reality, the calculation process is similar in both the women’s game and youth football. We’ll look at these three coefficients differently, simply because they are approached differently by UEFA and have their own quirks that are worth exploring separately from one another.
National Team Coefficient
The idea of a national team coefficient was first mooted in 2003 and was used to seed the finals proper of the 2004 European Championship. It was also used for the 2006 World Cup qualification process. Initially, the coefficient was calculated by taking the number of points scored and dividing it by the number of matches played in the last two qualification rounds for the World Cup and the Euros. The finals themselves, play-off games and friendlies were all ignored, whilst only one qualification was used if a team had qualified as a host for one of the tournaments.
In instances were two or more national sides had the same number of points for the coefficient, the following were used to separate them:
- Highest coefficient from matches played in the most recent of the qualifying competitions
- Biggest average goal difference per match, calculated by dividing the sum of all goal differences by the number of ranked games
- Highest number of goals scored per game on average
- Highest number of away goals scored per game on average
- Drawing lots if necessary
How The Current Coefficient Is Calculated
UEFA confirmed changes to the manner in which the coefficient ranking system would work on the 20th of May 2008. They would still be calculated in November every second year, but teams would gain ranking points for each match that they played in the most recently completed cycle. A full cycle was definite as all of the qualifying games and the actual tournament for both the World Cup and the European Championship. Additional ranking points would also be awarded for games in the latest half-cycle.
The following rules applied to the awarding of ranking points from two and a half cycles:
- 10,000 points awarded for playing a match, regardless of the result
- 30,000 additional points awarded for winning the match, 10,000 to both teams for drawing
- Points are allocated as if for a draw if the game is decided by penalty shootout, with 10,000 more points given to the winner
- Play-off matches are granted an additional 6,000 points, with the same number awarded to World Cup group stage games
- 38,000 points are given for reaching a final
- 500 points are awarded per goal scored, -500 taken away per goal conceded
- The number of points earned during each two and a half cycles are divided by the number of games played
- The latest full and half cycles are given double the weight of the oldest cycle
- There are special arrangements in place if a team didn’t take part in qualifying because they had already qualified as hosts
The UEFA Cup was introduced in 1971, with the competition growing in complexity in the years that followed. It boasted more clubs than the European Champions Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup, with as many as four clubs from each country taking part in it. In order to identify the number of participants that could take part from each association, UEFA introduced rankings in 1979.
In the wake of the introduction of the rankings, various systems were used to portray the history of the competitions under UEFA’s ruling. According to that system, only four leagues have hit the top spot in Europe. Even then, English teams were banned from European competition between 1985 and 1990 because of the Heysel Stadium disaster, removing them from the conversation for that time period.
What The Coefficient Is Used For
The association coefficient is used by UEFA to rank the European football associations, which is important when determining the number of teams that will take part in UEFA’s main club tournaments. These are as follows:
- The Champions League
- The Europa League
- The Europa Conference League
The rankings help UEFA to determine how many countries will take part in these competitions the season after the next one, not the first season in the wake of the rankings being published. In other words, rankings published at the end of the 2021-2022 season would be for the 2023-2024 campaign, not the 2022-2023 one.
The UEFA association coefficient is decided by looking at the results of the teams in each association in the various competitions that they’ve taken part in, with results taken from the previous five seasons. Each win managed by a club is given two points, with one point given for a draw. For matches played during qualifying rounds, points are halved.
Matches that are decided after extra-time will count towards the coefficient, but those that go to penalty shootouts will not, apart from for any bonus points given for making it further in the competition. The number of points each season is divided by the number of teams taking part from each association before being rounded down to three decimal places.
Deciding a coefficient for given season is achieved by adding the coefficients from the past five seasons. Bonus points are added and are awarded according to the following:
- Reaching the group stage of a competition
- Winning the group
- Finishing as group runners-up
- Reaching the Rround of 16
- Reaching the quarter-finals
- Reaching the semi-finals / final
The coefficient is used to determine the nations that have teams that will qualify for the group stage of the competition and which will have to go through the qualifying process. At the time of writing, the top four teams in the associations ranked 1-4 go straight to the groups in the Champions League, whilst it’s the top two of those ranked 5 and 6 and the champions from the ones ranked 7 to 10.
At present, the coefficient of a club is either the sum of point that they earned in the Champions League, Europa League or Europa Conference League, or else 20% of the club’s association coefficient during the same period, with the higher figure taking preference. UEFA uses the ranking to determine the seeding of clubs for the draws of competitions, including the qualifying phase.
Clubs receive two points for a win, one for a draw and none if they lose in the main stage of the major competitions. As with the association coefficient, extra-time results are included by those determined by penalty shootouts are not. Qualification bonus points are not given in addition to the win / draw points but merely so as to ensure that there is a minimum points allowance for qualifying teams.
Qualifying tournaments aren’t counted towards a club’s coefficient, unless the team gets eliminated in an earlier round. There are no points given for elimination from the Champions League or Europa League if the eliminated teams go into the Europa League or Europa Conference League respectively, with sides instead earning participation points from those leagues.
Here’s a look at the number of points earned in each of UEFA’s three main competitions from the 2021-2022 season onwards:
|Stage||Points In Champions League||Points In Europa League||Points In Europa Conference League|
|1st Qualifying Round Elimination||N/A||N/A||1|
|2nd Qualifying Round Elimination||N/A||N/A||1.5|
|3rd Qualifying Round Elimination||N/A||N/A||2|
|Participation In Group Stage||4||3 (Minimum)||2.5 (Minimum)|
|Each Win From Group Stage Onwards (Excluding Knockout Round Play-Offs)||2||2||2|
|Each Draw From Group Stage Onwards (Excluding Knockout Round Play-Offs)||1||1||1|
|Participation In Round of 16||5||1||N/A|
|Participation In Quarter-Finals||1||1||N/A|
|Participation In Semi-Finals & Final||1||1||1|
Before 2018, clubs received both the sum of the points that they’d earned over the previous five seasons and 20% of the club’s association coefficient. The result of that is that the club’s coefficient by November of 2021, taking into account performances in European competitions between 2017 and 2022, had the following teams in the top five places:
- Bayern Munich
- Manchester City
No team has been ranked top of the coefficient ranking over a five year period more regularly than Real Madrid, who achieved it 15 times between 1998 and 2019. At the time of writing, only Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have ever made it on the list from the English clubs that play in UEFA competitions, with Liverpool the most successful thanks to managing it twice.