Belgium, a giant with feet of clay?

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A couple of days ago, FIFA released their latest edition of their Rankings, in which Belgium, more or less surprisingly, remain in first place, where they had risen since November. Being also the last ranking of 2015, the Red Devils won the Team of the Year Award, which they will receive in Zurich at the FIFA Gala next month.

No doubt they are one of the most improved National Teams in recent years, but it’s worth raising the question, is it the best side in the world right now, even over Spain, Germany, Argentina or France? This article will try to answer that.

First of all, it’s worth explaining how it was that Belgium managed to finish 2015 on top of the FIFA Ranking. And for that, I asked an expert, Michel Richaud (you can follow him on Twitter here), who has analyzed the classification in depth in tha last few years.

"Let’s start by stating that the ranking takes into account four-year cycles. So for this analysis we have to see what have Belgium done from December 2011 to November 2015. In this cycle, they have played 42 games, 17 of which were friendlies, 10 qualifiers for the Euro, 10 World Cup qualifiers and 5 World Cup matches in Brazil. Belgium did not play the Euro 2012. Their results have been outstanding, winning 28 (67%), drawing eight (19%) and losing only 6 (14%).

There are two important aspects to understand for the Rankings:

1) competitive games are worth more than friendlies (World Cup games are worth 4 times more than a friendly and qualifiers 2.5 times more than a friendly)

2) The most recent matches are worth more than the least recent.

The key for Belgium to lead the rankings lies in the last two years where they have been almost perfect. They have won 17 games, drawn 3 and lost only 2. Of their 17 victories, 4 were in the World Cup in Brazil and 7 in the Euro Qualifiers. In short, having won 80% of the matches in the World Cup and 70% of the Euro Qualifiers propelled them to the top."

The reasons for the elevated position of the Red Devils are now clear, but it may be the result of a statistical evaluation problem in the FIFA Rankings rather than footballing brilliance. Let’s compare it with the other two existing rating systems.

The first is the ELO Rating, which gives more weight to the quality of opponents faced than the competition where the matches were played. In this ranking, Belgium appears in a much more modest position, the tenth, representing an increase of 3 positions with respect to 2014 and 8 from 2013. The second is ESPN's Soccer Power Index, which curiously, also places the Red Devils in tenth place, down one place compared to 2014.

It is then pertinent to ask which one is the real Belgium, the elite team of the FIFA Rankings or the very good team from the other two classifications. Let’s try to clarify.

While It’s true that their results have been spectacular these last two years, we should definitely analyse who they played against. Of their 17 wins in the last two years, only two have been against traditionally strong teams, Italy (3-1 in November) and France (4-3 in June this year), a further four against teams of a decent level: Algeria, Russia, South Korea and the United States (all in Brazil 2014) and the rest were against teams like Iceland and Bosnia, talented but with little international experience or bottom-dwellers like Cyprus, Israel and Andorra. Their two losses have come against Argentina (in the World Cup) and Wales (Euro qualifiers), against whom they also drew at home.

Let’s consider now the Belgian squad and compare it with other big names in world football. According to Transfermarkt, the accumulated value of the usual starting XI of the Red Devils is 283.5 million Euros. Germany’s value, for example, is 396 million, Argentina 386, Spain 376, France 294 and England 227. Of course Transfermarkt figures are not 100% precise, but they give an idea of the talent level of those teams.

In summary, despite what the FIFA Ranking might indicate, while Belgium is indeed among the leading teams on the planet, they are still far from the elite. And it makes sense. Seeing their squad, they have players like Hazard, De Bruyne or Courtois, but still lack one that can make a difference at key moments, as it was painfully evident in the game against Argentina in the 2014 World Cup.

And it seems to be clear for the Belgian players themselves. A few days ago I spoke with Thomas Vermaelen, in an interview due out next Monday at FIFA.com, and he tried to temper expectations about the team at Euro 2016. “I understand that people see us as favorites but will not be easy, we have a good team, but we have not achieved results in big tournaments, so I think other teams could be considered stronger. We are confident but it won't be easy”.