Switzerland? SWITZERLAND? That was the cry that rang around the globe when FIFA's October world rankings were released, revealing that the mighty Swiss were guaranteed to be one of the eight seeded nations at next summer's World Cup.
That's right. Switzerland, who in March were held to a 0-0 draw by Cyprus in a World Cup qualifier. The same nation that in September 2008 suffered an embarrassing 2-1 home defeat to qualifying whipping boys Luxembourg.
We highlighted before the final set of qualifiers in October that Switzerland were in line to be seeded at the expense of Italy. So just how is it possible for a team that failed to get out of the group stage at the 2010 World Cup, or qualify for Euro 2012, to be considered one of the top seven nations in the world?
Let's make one thing clear: There is no FIFA conspiracy here. Accusations that FIFA president Sepp Blatter being Swiss had something to do with the seeding are more than a little far-fetched; this is based purely on a clearly published mathematical equation.
First of all, lady luck has played a major part. Switzerland had not been in FIFA's top 10 since October 1995, when they were ninth. Their best-ever ranking came in August 1993 when they reached the dizzy heights of third. It just so happens that the Swiss peaked at their best position in 18 years on the day in October this year when FIFA chose to calculate the seven nations who would join hosts Brazil as seeds.
If FIFA used the current world rankings, neither Belgium nor Switzerland would be seeded. For those wondering why the latest list is not being used, it is because the likes of Portugal would have been given an unfair advantage to score ranking points from two competitive playoff matches while all other nations played friendlies. To illustrate just how much of an advantage Portugal would have had, dual wins over Sweden saw them leap nine places in November from 14th to fifth.
It's a fairy-tale story for Ottmar Hitzfeld's Switzerland. When the World Cup qualifying draw was made in July 2011, they languished down in 30th place in the rankings. That meant the Swiss were ranked 19th among European nations and placed in the third pot for the qualifying draw. To recover from a position of such adversity to qualify for the finals deserves some credit, with Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina the only other two nations from Pot 3 to make it.
Coming from Pot 3, the Swiss must surely have been handed a difficult World Cup qualifying draw? Actually, far from it. The seeded team in Group E was Norway, a nation that has not qualified for a major tournament since Euro 2000, would be the only seed not to progress to Brazil and would in fact finish fourth in the group. In July 2011, Norway were ranked 11th in the world; now they are 54th. Out of Pot 2 came Slovenia, one of the lower-ranked nations the Swiss could draw. Albania, Cyprus and Iceland completed a weak group.
Of the nations that could have been seeded in Friday's draw, Switzerland faced teams with the highest average FIFA rank in the last calendar year of 83.33. Netherlands' group was 80.33, England 79.83 before a noticeable leap in difficulty to Italy at 55.00 and Belgium, with the toughest group, at 51.33.
So the Swiss had a favourable draw. Seven wins and three draws later -- and 14 games unbeaten in all matches -- they had catapulted their way up the rankings.
While the qualifying results are obviously important, and ultimately cost Italy a place among the seeds, international friendlies proved vital too. In Switzerland's case, the lack of them.
FIFA's rankings are calculated over a four-year period, with more weight given to results in the most recent 12 months and competitive fixtures being worth 2.5 times that of friendlies. The ranking points are calculated using an average score for matches, with friendlies being worth significantly less.
Even if a nation beats top-ranked Spain in a friendly, its average could be pulled down. Beating Spain would be worth 600 points, but if a team at the top of the rankings is on 650 points before the match, a 600-point victory would serve to reduce its mean total. Friendly defeats are worth zero points, so lose, or even draw, too many and the effect is magnified. In that respect, playing fewer friendlies is actually better for a team's FIFA ranking.
And this is the key point. Switzerland played just three friendlies in the year up to October, beating Brazil in one of those, while Belgium played four. England and Netherlands played five friendlies and Italy six.
Belgium's seeding did not come as such a surprise, considering the number of high-profile players they have in their squad. Of the contenders for a seeding berth, only Netherlands could match Belgium's competitive record in the past 12 months, unbeaten with five wins and a draw. But Belgium's friendly record proved just as important in protecting their score, with only two defeats since 2011.
Comparatively, Netherlands' downfall is without doubt here. Since February 2011, they have played 14 friendlies and won only five, and those wins have come against Northern Ireland, Slovakia, China, Indonesia and England. The effect of so many friendlies, and so few victories, has held down their ranking score despite the fact they won nine of their 10 World Cup qualifiers. Switzerland were just two ranking points ahead of Netherlands in October.
The Dutch may look back on the number of friendlies they have played and how seriously they took them, but Italy threw away a seeding place. They finished third in the Confederations Cup -- which is worth more ranking points than World Cup qualifiers -- in the summer, giving them an additional five competitive games from which to score. They had it in their own hands and had to win only one of their final two qualifiers, in Denmark and at home to Armenia, but drew both.
If you think Netherlands have a poor friendly record, Italy's is even more startling. Since beating Poland in November 2011, the only team they have beaten is San Marino, while they have also drawn with Haiti. That's 12 matches played with one win, five draws and six defeats. Six matches from which Italy scored zero points and another five that provided a negligible ranking score.
To reach the final of Euro 2012, finish third at the Confederations Cup and win your World Cup group but still fail to be ranked in the top seven nations in the world is some achievement. Just like failing to take the Europa League seriously has cost Italian club sides UEFA coefficient points and a Champions League berth, the same can be said of their World Cup seeding and international friendlies. Had they played five friendlies instead of six in the past year, their average score would have been preserved enough to place them above Switzerland in the rankings.
England, ranked 10th in October, faced a similar position, having played two more friendlies than Switzerland. One of those games was a draw against the Republic of Ireland. Simply by not playing that fixture England would have been seeded.
It is also worth highlighting the distinct advantage South American sides have. They play 16 qualifiers -- usually 18 when the competition is not hosted in that region -- compared to 10 for most European teams. Added to that, they face higher ranked sides, games that are worth more points.
Let's take Uruguay, who finished fourth at the 2010 World Cup and won the 2011 Copa America yet had a horrible start to this qualifying campaign and needed a playoff against Jordan to make it to Brazil. In the past 12 months, the average FIFA rank of their opponents has been 20.14 -- remember the toughest faced by the European contenders was Belgium at 51.33 -- and they have beaten the sides that, at the time, were ranked second (Argentina) and third (Colombia) in the world. They won four of those seven qualifiers, as well as finishing fourth at the Confederations Cup, to pull them into the top seven.
Without the score from beating such highly ranked sides they would not have been seeded for the World Cup finals. It certainly appears an unfair advantage as European nations simply cannot play as many games that are so valuable.
On a final point, to clear up the protest made by France after they were not seeded in the European playoff draw, they argued that because they played two qualifiers fewer than the rest of Europe they were at an unfair disadvantage. However, had they had a sixth team in their group like the others, this would have been one of the continent's worst sides. Playing any team outside the top 100 or so, even in qualifiers, is worth so few ranking points it would have actually made their position worse, not better. So France had no grounds for their complaint.