ESPN, the SPI and Football Rankings

November 11, 2009

Lets get one thing straight, I was born in the US. I have lived in the UK since the age of five but hold a US passport, so I am usually the first to defend US football fans who come under attack by ‘open minded’ football fans from across the globe. At Fulham we have a record of excellent US players in McBride, Bocanegra and of course Clint Dempsey. To top it all off the Americans who played at Fulham were all exemplary professionals who played an honest game and worked hard. So to reiterate, I have nothing against the US and football.

However, sometimes you have to laugh. I love ESPN.com. They give great insight into every sport they report on and the ‘soccernet’ section is particularly good. But then this flashed up. The SPI or Soccer Power Index.  Notionally I have nothing wrong with stats and football, statistics can often reveal interesting facts about the way football is played. But this table (or index, if you like) is a joke. Lets start with the most obvious flaws. The first three rankings, Brazil, Spain and England fair enough. But Argentina in 5th!!!! What! Portugal, France and Uruguay rounding out the top ten! Teams that either failed to qualify or have not yet qualified for the World Cup are above countries that have. The blurb calls them ‘forward looking’ rankings, ones that do not take into account the past.  Looking further in they use club data from european leagues to help define the positions for them:

we’ve taken results from every recent game in the four key European leagues (England, Germany, Italy and Spain), plus the Champions League, and assigned credit or blame to the individual players on the pitch based on the results of those matches. If Samuel Eto’o scores a goal for Inter Milan, Cameroon also will get a little bit of credit in its SPI. If Petr Cech has a clean sheet for Chelsea, that will improve the Czech Republic’s ratings a little bit. And so forth.

Hmm. Please feel free to contradict me, look around at their argument and see what you think, but to me this illustrates how far statistical analysis has yet to come in football. We know that it is not a statistic heavy sport like baseball or basketball which is why creating assumptions based on statistics needs to be done very carefully. Rich on CCN and Colin at Championship at Best have explored the relationship between football and statistics on a regular basis. The difference is that they are not trying to simplify everything into crass tables for popular consumption.

Anyway, sorry for the rant, this just got up my nose. Seems lazy to be honest, too superficial. Something to irritate me for the international break!

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