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Simon Kuper: Forget backing favourites at World Cup 2014 – why the luck of the draw favours France (22/1) and Italy (25/1)

Read the Financial Times and Soccernomics author on the factors that affect the knockout stages of World Cup betting...

by Simon Kuper | May 21, 2014

There’s one truth about World Cups that every punter needs to understand: randomness. Luck plays a bigger role here than in club football.

You win the World Cup in just seven games. The last four of them are knock-out games. Certainly by the quarter-finals, differences in quality between teams are tiny.

Most games in this phase are decided by a single goal, or penalties, which means that the difference between going down in history or flying home to rotten tomatoes can be a bad offside call or hitting the post.

Sport’s biggest prize hinges on a very few moments. Jonathan Wilson puts it well in his book Anatomy of England.

One moment can shape a game, and one game can shape a tournament, and one tournament can shape a career. Football is not always fair.

That’s true: there’s no other ballgame in which the favourite loses more often. In rugby, the better team usually has more possession and in rugby possession generally buys points. Not in football. And the World Cup is especially unfair.

Spain World Cup 2010

The Premier League is played over 38 games, and over such a long stretch, luck – injuries, referees, the woodwork – tends to even out.

At the end of the season, the best team usually wins. Even the Champions League is much more predictable than the World Cup: its group stage last six games as opposed to three, and all games in the knock-out rounds (except the final) are over two legs.

If a linesman sticks up his flag at the wrong moment, the better team has more chances to put things right.

Any punter in the World Cup must therefore bet on luck. This means betting against huge favourites. Only once (Spain, 2010 @4/1) in the last four tournaments has the bookmakers’ favourite won.

World Cup favourites Image

This time Brazil are 3-1 to lift the trophy. Given the huge role of luck, those odds look cramped.  To me, Spain – not exactly a bad team – look better value at 7-1.

But I’d rather choose a plausible contender such as France at 22-1 (with the easiest run to the quarter-finals) or Italy at 25-1, and hope that luck lifts them over the line.

Another consequence of luck: it’s often worth betting against favourites in individual matches. In 2010, for instance, the market was sure that England would hammer Algeria. But the group game ended a sorry 0-0.

Only once you accept that the World Cup is held together by flukes – a bit like life itself – does the whole thing start to make sense.

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times and is co-author of Soccernomics. Follow him on Twitter here

 

 

 

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