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May 8, 2014

Soccer Power Index with eyes on Brazil

With this month’s FIFA rankings out Thursday, Five Aside analyzes five countries that moved up the Soccer Power Index rankings over the last year, as they look to make a significant impact next month at the World Cup.

Belgium, France and Uruguay have similar rankings in both SPI and FIFA, and all three countries have improved dramatically compared with this time last year. Meanwhile, the ranking systems differ on Portugal and Chile.

Before diving into why these teams have moved in the rankings, it is important to point out how SPI works. This tool is designed to provide the best possible objective representation of a team's current overall skill level and predict how that team will fare moving forward.

Three major factors determine the rating of a team in projecting its future results, according to SPI. These are the competitive level of games, opponents’ offensive and defensive qualities, and a small dose of how the individual players do with their club teams. For the international SPI rankings, the first factor mentioned is the most important in explaining ranking changes. Chile, Uruguay, France and Belgium all earned a significant bump with quality results in late-qualifying matches.

Portugal (SPI current rank: 14, last year: 7) One of the main discrepancies between the SPI ranking and the FIFA ranking is Portugal. FIFA has Portugal as the third-best country in the world while SPI places Portugal at 14th.

The United States' second World Cup opponent dropped seven spots compared with its SPI ranking last year. Portugal rose after a successful Euro 2012, but inconsistent qualifying results (two ties against Israel, one at home, and a loss against Russia) along with a struggling offense were the main reasons for Portugal’s ensuing drop. However, in the end, Portugal recovered and defeated Sweden in a playoff with four Cristiano Ronaldo goals in two games.

Chile (SPI current rank: 5, last year: 10) & Uruguay (current: 8, last year: 18) Chile, as opposed to Portugal, is ranked higher in SPI than in FIFA’s rankings. According to SPI, Chile was one of the biggest movers over the past 12 months. The sole fact that Chile finished its qualification campaign with an unbeaten streak of six games is a big factor in its change in SPI ranking from 10th to fifth.

In March 2013, Chile was outside the automatic qualifying spots in South America after losing four straight qualifiers. As a result of this, the federation fired coach Claudio Borghi.

New coach Jorge Sampaoli brought with him some renewed energy, complemented with a high-pressing game and quick vertical attacking patterns. Chile’s change in form was evidenced by five wins in its last six qualifiers.

Similar to Chile, Uruguay also orchestrated a late push to successfully qualify for the World Cup. With four games to play, Uruguay was outside the qualification zone. Despite having its back against the wall, a solid performance at the Confederations Cup translated into a successful finish to the qualifying campaign. Uruguay won three of its last four matches and went on to win a playoff against Jordan.

The good results in those competitive matches were the driving force behind Uruguay’s improvement.

France (SPI current: 7, last year: 12) & Belgium (current: 13, last year: 28) France moved into the top 10 after a close call in the qualifying playoffs, overcoming a two-goal deficit to top Ukraine. France’s other recent results have been quite good, as Didier Deschamps’ men won three of their last four qualifying matches.

Again, the qualifying matches weigh more than friendlies and noncompetitive matches. A team might lose every friendly but still manage a decent SPI ranking with solid results in matches of high importance.

Led by a superb generation of players such as Thibaut Courtois, Daniel Van Buyten, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany, Belgium had an outstanding qualification cycle, finishing on top of its group without losing a single match and allowing only four goals. This comes on the heels of not qualifying for EURO 2012.

Moreover, Belgium seems to have lucked out with its World Cup draw, sharing Group H with Algeria, Russia and South Korea. Belgium is not only the highest team ranked in this group, but it also has a 73 percent chance to advance, the highest probability in its group.