Let me start by saying that these rankings should not be taken too seriously. They will not predict for you which team would win a specific match-up. It is best seen as a general marker of how a squad has fared in recent international play, and despite its revision in July 2006, I am sure there are still imperfections. However, a few things jumped out at me upon reading the recently released FIFA World Rankings (June 2007):
1. How the mighty have fallen
Brazil has slipped to 3rd overall. Before the 2006 World Cup, could anyone imagine Brazil being in the state it is now? Their combination of enormous experience (Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Ze Roberto, Emerson, Gilberto Silva) and young talent (Kaka, Robinho, Adriano), not to mention the best player in the world at the time, Ronaldinho, was a mixture most national side coaches could never even dream of. So much for that. They appeared to lack motivation and chemistry, and they have paid the price. Now they MUST win the Copa America to get back on track to becoming the most feared squad in the world.
2. Rising in the East
Central/Eastern European countries are making a huge push up the rankings. The Czech Republic, once ranked 2nd overall has slipped to 10th, but they have been joined in the top 15 by Romania, Ukraine and Croatia, while Poland sits at 18th.
Romania won a friendly versus Spain last November and tied the Netherlands in UEFA Qualification play back in March. Croatia defeated Italy 2-0 right after the World Cup in a friendly, and beat England by the same score in October UEFA Qualification play. That same month saw Poland surprise many with a victory over Portugal in the UEFA Qualification, and while Ukraine has not been exceptional recently, they did have an impressive World Cup run that took them all the way to the quarterfinals.
At the moment, all four of these teams are in position to qualify for the EURO 2008 if they maintain their current standing.
3. Sinking in the West
Before the 2006 World Cup the United States was tied with Spain for 5th place, with Mexico seated 4th. While the US climbed 13 places since the last rankings in May to 16th overall, Mexico now sits at 26th. Victory in the Gold Cup will no doubt strengthen one of these side’s stature, but both teams were disappointing in the World Cup, and made their high rankings seem grossly misplaced.
4. European expansion
Only 6 of the top 25 teams come from outside Europe, compared to twice that many a year ago. While this is not exactly surprising, it is still noteworthy. Heavyweights Brazil and Argentina are still in the top 5, but Uruguay, Paraguay, and Colombia have fallen into the 30s.
Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon are within the top 20, and the first two especially have been playing well, but Nigeria has dropped to 32nd and the Republic of Guinea all the way to 50th. The United States rounds out the 6 non-European squads in the top 25.
Clearly UEFA remains the most competitive conference in the world, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more African teams climbing up the charts, especially with all the excitement of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The upcoming Copa America should also give us a chance to see if the lull for South American teams is merely a fluke or if a genuine power shift is underway. In the early part of this century, squads from Colombia, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay were fearsome opponents. It remains to be seen if they can regain their swagger.