If there’s a World Cup, it means there’s going to be some gold handed out. Just about everything is gold when it comes to the awards for this tournament — the boot, the ball, even the gloves — and you can bet on all of it. There’s also a Silver Ball and a Bronze Ball, which, thankfully, you cannot bet on. I don’t need to waste a night handicapping Bronze Ball markets, thanks very much. The Golden Boot is awarded to the player(s) with the most goals in the tournament. I’ll explain briefly what my methodology is for selecting a winner, and then give some bets I think have value.
In the past 12 World Cups (since 1970), there have been 16 Golden Boot trophies awarded. (Sometimes multiple players tie and share the award in a given year.) Of those trophies, 13 have been awarded to players who played the maximum number of games. I say “the maximum number of games” instead of saying “seven games” because the World Cup format has changed periodically, and rather than get bogged down in those details, it’s easier to just basically say the player went the distance.
What this proves, unsurprisingly, is that the more games someone plays, the more likely they are to have more goals in a given tournament. Not complicated. In this year’s tournament, the maximum number of games is seven: three in the group stage, then one each in the round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and either the final or the third-place game. In the most recent tournament, four years ago, a player did not play the maximum number of games, and still won the award — James Rodriguez of Colombia, who scored six goals in five games. This was an outlier, only the second time a player has won the award outright with that few games (1986 was the other).
All of this is important to remember for a few reasons. First, it means that if you like someone to win the Golden Boot award, you are pretty committed to their team making a deep run in the tournament, all the way to the semifinals. Playing in the third-place game historically as the seventh game has been much better than the final at the end, because of the more relaxed atmosphere and offensive strategy in that game. But you can’t really try to predict who is losing a semifinal — that’s a pretty long way away, and the semifinals figure to be coin flips such as Germany-Spain, where I’m not sure you can peg one team to be the loser with great accuracy.
Still, knowing the team must reach the semifinal to have a chance (in most years) eliminates many players right off the bat. Cristiano Ronaldo (+1600) is a prolific goal-scorer and one of the best players in the world, but Portugal are very unlikely to make the semifinals. If you think, “well yeah, but he’s so good he could score like seven goals before they even get eliminated,” here are his goal totals for the last three World Cups: 1, 1, 1. No, that’s not a typo. One goal every time.
Robert Lewandowski (+3300) is another player in a similar vein. His Poland team may not even make it out of the group, and in the much-less-talented EURO 2016 tournament, he scored exactly zero goals. Zero. Harry Kane (+1600) seems like a great option whom a lot of EPL fans are familiar with, but England making the semifinals would require beating either Brazil or Germany in the quarterfinals. Unlikely. Mo Salah (+4000) was dynamic for Liverpool, but it may be a different story for the Egyptian national team. Also, no African team has ever made the semifinals in history, so … you know … yeah. You can pretty much erase any CONCACAF, African or Asian player right off the bat as well. Those teams don’t make World Cup semifinals.
Those are some stars that I would pretty clearly avoid. However, things get really interesting with Argentina, whom I am really down on in this tournament. And if I’m down on Argentina, I have to be down on Lionel Messi (favorite: +950) to win the award as well. I think the collection of players they have around him this time is the worst it’s ever been. He plays in a group with no easy blowout games against teams such as Saudi Arabia or Australia or Panama. Even in Argentina’s run to the final last time, he still finished with only four goals in seven matches, two behind winner James Rodriguez (who played two fewer matches). At two previous World Cups, Messi finished with zero goals in five matches, and one goal in three. Despite the fact that Messi is the favorite, there sure are a lot of things pointing me away from him as fast as possible.
That narrows it down a little. Next, you have to be really worried about guys who play for contenders but won’t play the highest number of games because their team employs a few different possible “best” lineups. Players I would be specifically worried about would be France’s Olivier Giroud (+4000), Spain’s Diego Costa (+2800), Brazil’s Roberto Firmino (+6600) and Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain/Sergio Aguero (both about +3500, and again I don’t really like Argentina anyway).
That doesn’t narrow the list to a truly limited range, but it at least clears away a lot of dead money to make room for players who do offer value. To me, the teams that are most likely to make the semifinals are Brazil, Germany and Spain. This is not surprising to anyone. If you can figure out who wins the upper-most quarter of the bracket (most likely Uruguay or France), then you certainly would have some value on their premier scorers as well. Of that group, I’m probably more partial to Luis Suarez (+2500) than anyone. Antoine Griezmann (+1200) can win, but his odds are a little low considering France’s likelihood of advancing. Griezmann’s teammate Kylian Mbappe (+3300) may offer more value, and this could be his breakout tournament.
With all that in mind, here are some bets I like, knowing what we know about how the award is usually decided: