Russia's exit not entirely shocking
It would be a slight exaggeration to say Wednesday's playoff matches, which advanced six teams to South Africa and left six others on the sideline, will be the last meaningful soccer before June's World Cup. Friendlies are likely to be more competitive than usual, as teams seek to finalize lineups and achieve top form. And European club competition will be as fierce as ever; because club play as well as international play is accounted for by the SPI, this will have a slow but steady impact upon the rankings.
Still, until the action kicks off in South Africa next year, no single day of competition is going to have as much impact on the rankings as Wednesday's did -- and certainly none of it will be quite as exciting. So let's consider the action through SPI's eyes.
Slovenia (plus-1.2 points from 71.8 to 73.0) defeats Russia (minus-0.8 points from 79.8 to 79.0) 1-0; advances 2-2 on aggregate based on away-goals rule
The margin between success and failure in international soccer is often vanishingly small, and the Russians -- regarded by some as a strong enough team to win the World Cup -- are now out of the tournament. How did it happen?
First, the Russians failed to be ranked in the top "pot" in seeding for European qualification, their semifinal finish in the 2008 European Championships coming much too late to affect the seedings. That meant they drew Germany in Group 4, a team to which they lost twice, and had to settle for a home-and-home playoff against Slovenia. Then they conceded a late away goal to Slovenia in the first leg of the playoff Saturday, enabling Slovenia to advance to South Africa by winning 1-0 at home -- which was exactly their margin of victory Wednesday. Finally, Russia's problems were compounded when one of its best forwards, Alexander Kerzhakov, was sent off in the 66th minute of the match in a skirmish around the goal, crippling the Russians' chances of scoring a late equalizer.
Can the Russians blame bad luck? Perhaps up to a point; in spite of now having dropped to 14th in the SPI rankings, they are nevertheless rated higher than any team that played in Group 3 (which qualified Slovakia and Slovenia) or Group 2 (which qualified Switzerland and Greece). And there have long been questions about whether the away-goals rule is the fairest way to break ties. Still, Slovenia was a relatively easy draw, coming into the match with a lower SPI ranking than teams like Ukraine or Bosnia-Herzegovina, which the Russians might have drawn instead.
Then again, there's also the question of how strong the Russians were in the first place. Although their performance in Euro '08 was impressive, they had failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and indeed have never advanced to the knockout stages of the World Cup since the USSR broke up two decades ago. And though their 7-2-1 record in qualifying was superficially impressive, there was a lot of dead weight in Group 4, which featured opponents such as Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein. Lastly, very few of Russia's starting 11 are playing in the elite European leagues, preferring to play for domestic clubs instead. Thus SPI had already been hedging its bets some on the Russians, as compared to other ranking systems like ELO that had them rated as high as seventh.
Kudos, meanwhile, to Slovenia, which SPI ranks as the 24th-strongest of the 32 sides to qualify for South Africa. The Slovenes will need some luck to advance to the knockout stages, but because they play good defense, they're the sort of team that could cause a higher-ranked opponent to stumble to a 1-0 defeat or 0-0 draw.
Greece (plus-1.2 points from 72.2 to 73.4) defeats Ukraine (minus-1.2 points from 77.2 to 76.0) 1-0; advances 1-0 on aggregate
SPI is not all that high on the Greeks, who finished second in a very weak Group 2 and who have had little international success since their surprising championship in Euro 2004. But having watched most of their match against Ukraine, I can say this: They play cohesive and disciplined soccer as a unit, particularly with a lead. Ukraine, by contrast, appeared to be disorganized and dispirited, squandering a number of opportunities with poor finishing in front of an indifferent crowd at Donbass Arena in Donetsk (with crowd size possibly suppressed by swine flu fears). This qualifies an as upset, but only a minor one.
France (minus-0.8 points from 81.1 to 80.3) draws with Ireland (plus-0.6 points from 70.6 to 71.2) 1-1; advances 2-1 on aggregate
The French, runners-up four years ago in Germany, haven't made things easy on themselves, first falling into a playoff against Ireland after a series of mediocre results in Group 7 (a home draw against Romania and a road loss to Austria), and then needing a disputed goal in extra time to advance on the aggregate against the 40th-ranked Irish.
Appropriately, SPI punishes them a bit for the home draw, dropping them out of the SPI top 10 for the time being. Somewhat like Argentina, France is failing to play up to the level of its formidable talent -- the French SPI ranking would be even lower if not for the strong performances their players have turned in during club play. It would behoove them to play a fairly competitive schedule of friendlies in advance of South Africa as they seek to fine-tune their lineup. Still, France appears likely to receive a top seed in next month's World Cup draw, which will help its cause in the group stages.
Uruguay (minus-0.6 points from 81.0 to 80.4) draws with Costa Rica (plus-0.8 points from 72.0 to 72.8) 1-1; advances 2-1 on aggregate
Uruguay faced the same situation as France, returning home with a 1-0 lead against an apparently inferior opponent. Like the French, they advanced on the aggregate, securing a 1-1 draw, but took a bit of a hit to their SPI rating. I'm not sure the comparison completely holds up, however: Unlike France, Uruguay scored first against Costa Rica, putting itself on the brink of danger more than actually falling off the precipice. Also unlike France, Uruguay tended to dominate the action, outshooting the Costa Ricans 11-4.
Uruguay falls slightly, to 10th, in the SPI rankings. Along with eighth-ranked Chile and ninth-ranked Ivory Coast, Uruguay will be one of the teams I'll be rooting for in South Africa, as SPI detects more talent from these teams than other rating systems do.
Portugal (plus-0.4 points from 80.9 to 81.3) defeats Bosnia-Herzegovina (minus-0.6 points from 73.8 to 74.4) 1-0; advances 2-0 on aggregate
Portugal, which has advanced to seventh in the SPI rankings, was the only team to win both legs of its home-and-home. It was also the only team to win the aggregate by a multiple-goal margin. To have done so without the services of Cristiano Ronaldo, who was out with an ankle injury, was particularly impressive. And indeed, the 2006 semifinalists -- in spite of some early struggles in qualifying -- are undefeated thus far in 2009. If the team is at full strength for South Africa, it will be very formidable. Bosnia-Herzegovina had nothing particularly to complain about, but has a potent attack led by 23-year-old striker Edin Dzeko and would have been a fun team to watch in South Africa. Bosnia-Herzegovina will be worth keeping an eye on for 2014, by which time Dzeko could be a superstar.
Algeria (plus-0.7 points from 68.6 to 69.3) defeats Egypt (minus-0.7 points from 74.8 to 74.1) 1-0; advances to South Africa
Earlier this week, I wrote that although Egypt was the stronger team, its "inconsistent defense gave Algeria good upset chances." Is that what happened in the one-game playoff in Sudan? Perhaps, although the spectacular goal scored by Algeria's Antar Yahia was the sort of thing that even the best defense in the world might have struggled to prevent. Still, an elite team might not have put itself in such a vulnerable position in the first place, and when Egypt looks back on the qualification process, it's the 1-1 draw against Zambia in Cairo on March 29 that stands out as the less excusable result.
Algeria, meanwhile, qualifies for its first World Cup since 1986, ranking 28th of the 32 qualifiers. Although the African teams in general could be tough draws because of "home-continent advantage," I'm not sure how much that applies to Algeria. The capital, Algiers, is more than 4,600 miles by plane from Johannesburg -- almost exactly the same distance as Brasilia, Brazil.
Here is a ranking of the World Cup qualifiers (with their overall SPI world ranking in parentheses if it differs from the World Cup rank):
9. Ivory Coast
14. Cameroon (15)
15. United States (15)
16. Paraguay (18)
17. Mexico (19)
18. Denmark (20)
19. Australia (22)
20. Honduras (25)
21. Switzerland (31)
22. Nigeria (33)
23. Greece (34)
24. Slovenia (35)
25. Japan (36)
26. Ghana (38)
27. South Korea (42)
28. Algeria (46)
29. Slovakia (50)
30. South Africa (65)
31. North Korea (91)
32. New Zealand (92)
Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.