A few days ago, there was a meeting at The Action Network office. Given the roster of people in the conference room, it seemed like an important gathering, which was a little weird because I wasn’t invited and the people upstairs usually like to have me sit in on these things to keep everybody in check.
Even if I was invited to the summit, I would have given it a hard pass. I had way bigger fish to fry. My beautiful Croatia were taking on destiny’s newest child — the Three Lions of England. I was heavily invested in Croatia in the World Cup. I had them at 30-1, I had them in the finals in all of my pools, and I had Luka Modric to win the Golden Ball at 100-1.
In other words, my life was hanging in the balance.
With so much at stake, I lost myself for a moment. Sime Vrsaljko sent a beautiful cross into the box, and there was Ivan Perisic to guide it home. It was 1-1, and I was screaming in the middle of the office. The conference room door swung open.
That goal was the moment of the World Cup for me. I made some really good bets in the future market, and if Vrsaljko didn’t connect with Perisic there, a lot of hard work and sweat would have been for naught.
I love futures so much.
Croatia defeated England, 2-1, and Modric was superb. I was in great shape for the final. I wasn’t out of the woods, but I had a lot of lucrative outs, and things would have to go full Murphy’s law for me to come away from Russia a loser.
The Euro 2016 Model
I went into the World Cup with a familiar betting strategy. I had a lot of success betting Euro 2016 with futures on Portugal and Wales and thought there was no reason that my approach should change too much for World Cup 2018.
Portugal won the Euros despite not playing very well in France. They drew all three matches during group play and advanced as one of the best third-place teams thanks to the expanded tournament. They got through the round of 16 and quarters on penalties and then were lucky to draw Wales in the semifinals. They took care of business against Wales, and that meant they’d have a showdown with France in the final. Once again, Portugal set up defensively and hoped Cristiano Ronaldo would save them. Instead he got hurt, but the plan still worked thanks to an extra-time winner from Eder.
Most of these international tournaments are won by teams that are committed to allowing fewer goals than their opponents, rather than ones that are hellbent on trying to score more than them.
Portugal were mocked as tournament ruiners, but they were my tournament ruiners. That’s the wonderful thing about futures. If I didn’t invest in Portugal to win the tournament, I would have hated them, but since I was holding a ticket, I loved these black hats like they were minha familia.
As the World Cup drew closer, I thought about that Portugal team a lot. I thought my approach was sound and wanted to replicate it for the World Cup. I wanted to build a portfolio that was anchored by teams that would be tough to beat. I grabbed shares of France, Uruguay, Mexico, Peru and Croatia.
The more and more I thought about Croatia, the more and more I liked them. I also knew my colleague Sean Newsham was a believer in the Vatreni, and that gave me more confidence. Not only were they a well-organized unit, they had much more talent than most 30-1 longshots, and that starts and ends with their humble talisman, Luka Modric.
Modric was already a cult hero before the tournament. Soccer people love to tell each other that Modric doesn’t get enough credit for anything. That’s life in the big city, as the 32-year-old has shared a locker room with Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos for the past few seasons. Even with all that talent on the team, it is Modric who truly makes Real Madrid tick.
For some reason I was thinking about Modric and Croatia late one night driving home from softball. I thought to myself, if I truly believed Croatia can win, why wouldn’t I bet on Modric to win the Golden Ball? They will go as far as he can take them.
I thought this was a great idea, and I expected to see Modric listed around 50-1. He’s one of the best players on the planet, after all. I was wrong. My man was sitting there at 100-1.
As the team progressed, I realized I didn’t really care much about the 30-1 ticket. Instead, I was rooting for them as a vehicle to progress Modric’s campaign for Player of the Tournament.
After a terrific performance in the semis, Modric was +175 to win the Golden Ball, making him second-favorite behind France’s Kylian Mbappe for the award. The general consensus was that if France won the final, Mbappe would win the award, and if Croatia pulled off the upset it would be Modric’s. Hoo boy.
All weekend long I went over my bets and tried to work out a hedge scenario. I already had a bet on France, and I had Golden Ball futures on Mbappe (16-1) and Paul Pogba (20-1). The payouts were a lot less than my Croatian investments, but they were enough to keep me from truly hedging.
The only scenario that could ruin everything would be a France win and Antoine Griezmann winning the Golden Ball. That situation was unlikely, but definitely not out of the question — especially if the French striker found the back of the net against Croatia. The odds were clearly in my favor, and I felt confident enough to watch this game at a bar with my family and a Senegalese dude who was actually wearing a Croatia jersey. (He played on a Croatian club team.)
Of course, Griezmann made an impact early on. He took a dive outside the box, drew a free kick, and it was 1-0 France. Griezmann took the direct kick, but it was given as an own goal. Not a good start.
Every time Griezmann got on the ball my heart sank a little. He was having a good game, and Lukita, my Balkan beauty, was relatively quiet. An equalizer from Perisic provided momentary relief, because just a few minutes later, ref Nestor Pitana was drawing a square, and I knew what was about to happen. I was going to lose my bets on some BS.
A penalty was given, and Griezmann scored. He was dancing. I was thinking about getting help.
Putin and the Rain
The rest of the game played out, but I was resigned to my fate. Mbappe and Pogba scored, so there was hope that I avoided a complete collapse, but I was sure that somebody took my 100-1 longshot out back and shot it.
We were home soon after the final whistle. Much to my displeasure there were some logistical issues delaying the trophy lift and awards presentation. It was pouring, and the thought was that Vladimir Putin was waiting out the weather so he didn’t short-circuit on stage. While the dignitaries and bureaucrats waited in the tunnel, there were my Croatian brothers, sitting on the pitch as France’s newest batch of heroes bounced around them, draped in flags and wearing smiles. I just wanted it to be over. I think they did, too.
I checked Twitter to see if any news about the awards broke yet. I grew even more nervous when I saw a bunch of people clamoring for Belgium’s Eden Hazard to be given the trophy. I put the phone down.
My old man wanted to turn on the Yankees, and I didn’t care. This was taking forever, and I was sure nothing good was going to come of watching it. We turned on the Bombers. After a few pitches he flipped back to “see if Putin came out.”
As fate would have it, we flipped back just as Modric was hugging someone. I assumed he was being given a silver medal. Then he turned around, and he was holding a trophy.
We did it.
As thrilled as I am with the payout — and I am thrilled — I am just as tickled about the fact that every time I watch Luka Modric play, I will think about this ridiculous ride. People are calling this the best World Cup of all time.
They are right.