So it's official, England will not be seeded in the World Cup draw. Fifa's latest world rankings, in which the world's top seven will join Brazil as seeds, puts them only 10th. But the frustration is that they might have made it, had they only tried. The difference between success and failure in this race lies not only in results on the pitch, though they obviously help, but in a bit of thought being put in off it. Sure, had England held on to their half-time lead in Montenegro in March, or beaten Ukraine last month, a place in pot one would have been theirs, but the easiest way for the Football Association to have made sure their team got seeded wasn't by getting them to actually play well – which is an awfully complicated business – but by occasionally making sure they didn't play at all.
This is going to get mildly complicated, so bear with me. The basic facts to start with: in the latest Fifa rankings there are 58 ranking points between England and Switzerland, the last of the seeded teams. England's performances this year have contributed 485.46 towards their total, the number of points won on average per match played. Switzerland have averaged 669.63 points per match this year. The Swiss had a kind qualifying draw, and played their hand admirably well, but the key difference between the teams, the reason why the Swiss will be seeded and the English will miss out, is that England have played five friendlies in the last year (W2 D2 L1), and Switzerland only three (W2 D1).
Fifa's ranking system heavily rewards competitive fixtures – a European team will get 2.5 times more points for a result in World Cup qualifying than the same result against the same team at the same time in a friendly. The most points it is possible to win in a friendly – by beating the world's No1 team – is 600, which is still below Switzerland's average. If even winning a friendly can hurt a top team's ranking, imagine the damage that drawing or losing can do.
For example, against Sweden last November England were leading 2-1 with 15 minutes to play, made a stream of second-half substitutions and eventually lost the match 4-2. The match earned them no ranking points. Had they simply not played that game they would currently be 48.55 points better off. Six months later England won a feeble 161 points by drawing with the Republic of Ireland. Had that game also never been scheduled, England would currently be ranked by Fifa as the sixth best team in the world.
A combination of pride and commercial imperatives have forced the FA to schedule a string of prestige friendlies – against the best sides on the planet, whose excellence means they are most likely to cause England to fail, or against other British or Irish nations, who will be hugely motivated by the occasion. If a place among the seeds in the World Cup finals is a priority then, in the key year before the finals draw, an association should schedule as few friendlies as possible, and if they really must arrange one they have to win it.
Play the percentages: England would have got 543 points had they won at the Maracanã in June, but there were just 181 on offer for a draw while defeat would have left them with nothing. Meanwhile you can get 483 points for beating Peru at home, or 468 for beating Honduras. In this context the FA's decision to schedule an away friendly against Brazil, or for that matter Sweden, in the year of a World Cup finals draw is unjustifiable. Even if all their other results had been unchanged, had England played no friendlies at all in the last 12 months they would be 181 ranking points better off, and officially the fourth best team in the world.
They could also have scheduled their competitive games better. Even in qualifiers a victory against one of the very worst sides in Europe, such as San Marino, is worth just 375 points. In other words, being drawn against a rank no-hoper during qualification is severely detrimental to a team's chances of being seeded once qualified. The only way of limiting the damage is by scheduling both matches against them more than a year before the finals draw, because Fifa's system massively prioritises results over the most recent 12-month period. Matches you might well lose should also go here, while games more likely to bring hefty returns – against average-to-good nations, especially at home – should never be among the first qualifiers played. .
(As an aside, France recently complained that they were disadvantaged by being in a five-team group, which gave them two fewer qualifiers and therefore fewer chances to accumulate ranking points. This is total nonsense – the addition of a feeble sixth team to their group would have enormously reduced their point-scoring potential. Had they finished qualifying with a 100% record, and taking their opponents' rankings at the point the draw was made, their matches would, on average, each have brought 1,173.62 points. The addition of San Marino, Andorra or Malta would have reduced this average by 159.72. The truth is that theirs would have been the best group of all, had they only played better.)
There is also an element of luck, because points are calculated according to a team's ranking at the moment the match takes place, which has nothing to do with the opponent. For example, when the qualifying draw was made in July 2011 Moldova had a world ranking of 85, meaning that at that moment England could have earned a handsome 862.5 points by beating them. But their ranking had been inflated by a couple of rogue victories in previous qualifying campaigns.
These results became less important as time passed, and when England actually got round to playing them for the first time, in September 2012, they had dropped down to 141, and the maximum points available for a win was a miserable 442.50.
If, when the draw was made, Armenia rather than Moldova had been placed from pot five into England's group, and if England had beaten them home and away, they would be 62.44 points better off and, even without changing their friendlies or any other results, would have usurped the Swiss as world No7. The best possible qualifying group has plenty of decent teams, with absolutely no terrible ones. The current system massively benefits the South American sides, who play more qualifiers (normally 18) than the Europeans and face no side currently ranked below 71 in the world. Whoever gets through that group is all but guaranteed a points bonanza, and the continent will duly have four seeded teams next summer.
So if England do find themselves in the group of death when the draw is made on 6 December lessons should be learned. Recent, painful history has taught us that a team of England's quality will always mess up in matches, whoever's sitting on the bench. But Fifa's system hands great power to the administrators, and gives whoever schedules matches – or refuses to – the chance to give their team a significant boost. Next time, the FA should take it.