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Simon Kuper exclusive: England are getting better in tournaments but may still pay the ultimate penalty

Read the Financial Times and Soccernomics author on why England have a better chance in Rio than the odds suggest.

by Simon Kuper | May 26, 2014

This may be unprecedented: England is about to kick off a World Cup underestimated by punters. For decades a wall of “loyal money” backed the team.

This time, though, only 13 per cent of bets laid with Paddy Power on the World Cup are on England – even though the bookmaker is offering them at 28-1 to win the tournament.

I don’t think England will win the World Cup – but their chances are higher than 28/1.

Contrary to popular opinion, England keep getting better. The FA thinks that the influx of foreign players into the Premier League has weakened the national team. But this argument is false. As Stefan Szymanski and I show in our book Soccernomics, England have been improving since the foreign influx began.


A few facts:

  • From 1968 through 1992, England averaged 1.4 points a game at World Cups and European Championships (counting three points for a win).
  • Since 1998 – i.e. since the Premier League became international – they have averaged 1.69 points. (See graph below. I’m deliberately omitting the World Cup 1966 and Euro 96, anomalous tournaments because England were playing at home.)
  • England have reached the knock-out rounds of every World Cup since 1998, whereas previously they often didn’t qualify for World Cups.
  • Taking every match England play, their winning percentage has been creeping up since the early 2000’s and has now topped 68 per cent (counting draws as half a win). That’s their best level since the late 1960s when they were world champions.

It seems that the hyper-competitive multinational Premier League has improved the best English players and they might outperform expectations in Brazil. Warren Buffett’s investment advice applies beautifully to betting on England.

Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.


Paying the penalty

But England’s problem isn’t the matches. It’s the penalties.

In six of the last 10 tournaments for which England qualified – they’ve exited on penalty shoot-outs. Ben Lyttleton’s new book Twelve Yards shows with statistics that once a nation has a bad historical record in shoot-outs, it becomes more likely that they lose the next shoot-out.

Players probably kick with memories of past failures in their heads. In any knock-out match, it’s therefore rational to bet on England losing.


Back England to score ‘early doors’

Yet the smartest bet on England exploits their propensity to score the first goal. In every World Cup ever played, most goals were scored after half-time. That’s when players tire, teams start chasing goals, and gaps open up.

But England, in their last seven tournaments since 1998, scored 27 of their 43 goals before half-time.

The team’s record in crucial games is even starker in the matches in which they were eliminated from tournaments. They scored eight of their nine goals before half-time. England tend to perform like a cheap battery – but at 28/1 they’re now probably underrated.

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