The Highlights

  • Argentina has gone from overrated to underrated in a hurry. Getting them at +125 odds against France is enticing.
  • Lionel Messi is a huge longshot to win the Golden Boot at +3750, but he’s still the most prolific goalscorer in the tournament. 
  • Yes, I know Russia have to play Spain in the Round of 16, but if they can pull off that upset, they have an easier path to the final than you might think.

I’m not sure about you, but the last few weeks of my life as a sports fan have been an adrenaline rush that I did not see coming. Usually after the NBA Finals, we find ourselves clinging to scraps of football news, momentarily entering the realm of baseball betting (my model was plus units for the month! Aaaand now I’m done) or counting days between tennis and golf majors.

Instead, thanks to the unprecedented drama of this World Cup, every morning and afternoon we’ve been treated to excitement via multiple screens, goal differentials, fair-play points, the VAR and cutaways of fans who become less likable the moment they realize they’re on camera.

Chaos

We’re 48 matches in, and I’m still not quite sure what a penalty is or that we ever really knew to begin with. I’m also still not sure who the best team really is, who the leading goalscorer will be, or whether Belgium should have intentionally lost Thursday’s match. (I think so? But Colombia on the other side is no picnic even if the quarterfinal matchup is easier on that side.)

So how do we make sense of something that’s made so little sense so far? (Raise your hand if you had Switzerland-Sweden as a Round of 16 matchup.)

Like most futures markets, it’s really just a matter of identifying value before everyone else does and thinking about things in a slightly contrarian way. For example, you may think Spain is going to win the tournament. And that’s great. They can definitely win the tournament (they are one of 16 teams that can say that, too).

 

But the question is, should you bet Spain at 4-1? I would argue no, not only because you could get better odds by doing a rolling parlay as you went (they’d need to win four matches, the final would be an even contest, or Spain could even be a small dog to Brazil, which would pay more than 4-1 when bundled), but also because, well, what has Spain really been this tournament?

Poking Holes

Along with all the parity, we’ve lacked a truly dominant team thus far. Give me a team and I can give you several knocks on them.

Spain? They’ve produced one win in the tournament so far, and it was 1-0 over Iran (and they needed a disallowed goal in that one). They were very fortunate to draw with Morocco, and that was with their full squad.

Brazil? They were tied 0-0 with Costa Rica for 90 minutes, and their best player can’t stop diving and can’t stop missing amazing scoring chances. Their second-best player was sleeping on a too-soft mattress and now might be too injured to play.

Belgium? They beat up on two terrible teams, so we really have no idea how good they are, plus their star forward has an ankle injury.

England. They’re … well … they’re England.

And we could go on and on and on. I think what I’m saying is, if you’re positive you know something going forward, you’re probably wrong, or more accurately, overconfident.

So where’s the value, then? Japan to take home the title? Not exactly.  But here are some prices I find very interesting.

Argentina to advance vs. France (+125 in most places)

Everything old is new again. It sure seems like the pendulum has swung fully from Argentina being completely overrated, through their evisceration vs. Croatia, back to being underrated again. Quite frankly, I don’t see France as any kind of favorite in this matchup. They are perpetually a team whose individual players are much more talented than the team ends up being. Here are the last eight years of their results in knockout stages:

2010 World Cup — Failed to reach knockout round.

2012 Euro — Lost to Spain, 2-0, in quarterfinals (first elimination round).

2014 World Cup — Defeated Nigeria, 2-0, in Round of 16 as heavy favorites, then lost to Germany 1-0 in quarterfinals.

2016 Euro — HOSTED the tournament.  Defeated Ireland and Iceland as heavy favorites, defeated Germany, 2-0, in semifinals, lost, 1-0, in extra time to Portugal (without Ronaldo for most of match) in final.

There is one compelling knockout-round result in four major tournaments to hang your hat on, and it was in a tournament they hosted. So tell me again how France are thought of so highly in these big spots? I don’t know either. This seems much closer to a coin flip than anything, with Argentina such a wild unknown quantity. Plus money either way seems like a good idea, and +125 on one side seems like a great idea. Also, you get to root for more Diego Maradona celebrations, a very special bonus perk.

Lionel Messi to win Golden Boot +3750 / Eden Hazard to win Golden Boot +4000  (Bookmaker)

First off, you definitely want to shop around on these; Bookmaker was just the first to re-open the market. This is a market that has very wide price differences, or at least has had them throughout the tournament. I doubt this period of time will be different.

 

Anyway, as for the bets, I just want to start by saying I was really, really excited about fading Harry Kane to win this award. He scored his five goals via wide-open header, wide-open header, penalty, penalty and completely fortunate deflection. England have very little pedigree for showing up in a big spot, ever, so they could have been eliminated very early, leaving him on five goals, a total which basically never wins the award. There was so much to like.

And then Belgium won the match Thursday.

Why is that so important? Because now England (by virtue of finishing second in their group and being placed in a certain spot) is very likely making the semifinals. In most World Cups, playing the maximum number of games is a prerequisite for winning the Golden Boot award (unless a crazy confluence of events occurs, as it did four years ago when James Rodriguez won).

This knockout-round draw, with the bottom-right quarter being the easiest — England play Colombia, possibly without Rodriguez, then face the winner of Sweden-Switzerland — has set up so that England very likely play the maximum number of games. It makes fading Kane infinitely less fun, so this group of bets enters a tier I’d refer to as “Degens Only.” Since that’s basically anyone who has found this article and gotten to this point, I’ll just proceed forward with the rest of the content.

England are still England, so, hey, let’s take a shot, right? Brazil may seem like they field strong candidates, but their goal-scoring has been so balanced this tournament, and Neymar has been one of the more unreliable players in finishing chances, that I think you’re unlikely to make up ground with any Brazilians.

Two players I really want here if I’m trying to catch up are Eden Hazard (two goals so far) and Lionel Messi (one goal). The best thing going for both players? They take the penalties for their team, which matters a lot in this tournament. We’ve already broken the record for penalties at a World Cup, and we’re just entering the knockout portion. If I’m going to catch up, I want penalty-takers.

The analysis for Messi is incredibly straightforward: He is the most prolific goal scorer in the tournament, and there is something really weird happening with this team as they bond over their hatred for their fired-but-still-present manager, Jorge Sampaoli. Messi faces a coin-flip game against France, then another coin-flip game against the winner of Uruguay-Portugal. It would then actually be a bonus to lose to Brazil in the semifinals (or Belgium) as a reasonable underdog, because the third-place game has historically produced high-scoring, dramatic results and several Golden Boot winners (as opposed to the final, which is played with defensive intentions due to the stakes). This path is not as unlikely as you might think. The sequence basically goes coin-flip win, coin-flip win, loss.

Hazard is the player I am more excited about (although now he plays in Brazil’s portion of the bracket). He has two goals already, and the most prolific goal-scorer on his own team, Romelu Lukaku, faces injury concerns with his ankle. Hazard takes penalties and splits free-kick duties with Kevin De Bruyne, so there are a variety of ways he can score. They face the easiest Round of 16 opponent in Japan, which represents a great chance to make up ground in a hurry. The fact that Brazil looms in the quarterfinal is the No. 1 reason I was depressed earlier when talking about not being able to fade Kane with much vigor. Yes, you probably need Belgium to win that match for this bet to have potential, but they are absolutely one of the teams capable of defeating Brazil.

So, yes, these are two longshot prices, which means they probably aren’t going to win a large portion of the time. But I really can’t think of something more fun and historically profitable than fading England in major tournaments.

Russia to make the final +2300

I have been laughed out of conversations when I try to talk about this seriously, which is interesting because most people usually love conspiracies.

Yes, I know that Russia got wrecked by Uruguay in their final group match. I also know that Uruguay went 3-0 in their group, and therefore may be the best team in the tournament right now. I also know that Russia missed point-blank scoring chances down 1-0 and then had a player sent off later in the match. That’s going to make things look much worse in the final box score.

 

I do think that this is interesting because the hardest match is the first match (vs. Spain), and if they get by that, I’m not even sure they’ll be that much of a dog against Croatia and then England (or an even worse team) in the semifinal. The 23-1 represents better value than a rolling parlay if I am correct with those assumptions.

We know that this is a country with a storied history of cheating in big spots and doing whatever it takes to be successful, no matter how shady (that same logic can be applied to FIFA). This isn’t just conjecture, by the way, when it comes to this tournament. A very compelling thread by @MrJamesHodari on Twitter points out that Russia has been unusually adept at running long distances in their games compared to other countries and their expected endurance. If there is subterfuge going on, wouldn’t you want to be on the right side of it? And by that I mean, the wrong, immoral, but profitable side of it?

We also know that being the host country has brought value in the past; it’s produced multiple winners and historic finishes from teams that were not as good as their competition. South Korea made it to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup thanks to some, uh, shady officiating. That happened. If that can happen, this can absolutely happen, and I think with how shaky Spain have looked in spots, it’s more likely to happen than people think.

If you enjoy this ultra-contrarian position, I’d also highly recommend Denis Cheryshev for Golden Boot (85-1 at Bookmaker). Obviously if they make the final, or make the semi and you hedge, they’ll be in line to play the max number of games.

I’ve really gone out on a limb here, though, because the most likely match for Russia to lose is the first one, so when Spain smashes them 3-0 and everyone points and laughs at me, that should be a really fun time.

//Turns Twitter account to private.

Credit:

Tim Groothuis, USA Today Sports

Follow Ken Barkley on Twitter
@LockyLockerson