The Gambler’s Guide to the 2014 World Cup

A transatlantic planning session


Charlie

Bob Costas is probably still on a course of antibiotic eyedrops, but our next major international sporting event is only fifty days away: the 2014 World Cup. This means that across most of the world, where the Cup is like a meth-fueled version of March Madness, people are already poring over the betting odds. No doubt some poor soul in Liverpool placed a wager just this morning that England will win the tournament and Steven Gerrard will be the top goalscorer (a combination currently open to bettors at 200/1).

Don’t listen to Stephen Colbert. He works for CBS.

But here in America, even those of us who wake up every Saturday morning with Rebecca Lowe may not associate the Cup very strongly with gambling. I’m here to change that, by asking my oracular British friend Rob, who knows everything about soccer, to help me determine the answer to the most important question of the tournament: how I, personally, can make money off of it. Or at least place enough bets to watch every game with the obsessive pleasure that gambling adds to sports.

Two things to bear in mind as you read: First, click on the underlined text throughout to see images, GIFs, and videos of what we’re talking about; second, the Cup will probably turn both of us into penniless vagrants by the time the final rolls around, so take this advice at your own peril.

Rob, let’s start big: Who is going to win this tournament?

Rob

Spain. The winners of the last World Cup are mature, know how to get it done in the hysteria of tournament football, and are stronger now than at any time when they were winning three majors in a row. Their leftovers, like the injured Victor Valdes, Thiago Alcantara, and Jese, or the potentially unselected (Juan Mata, Fernando Llorente, Michu, Javi Garcia) would be central to nearly every other team’s plans. New players are improvements while the much-medalled tried-and-trusteds are almost all in their prime. Only Xavi is genuinely elderly (34), and anyway, he could boss a game from a wheelchair if he had to.

Not literally an owl, don’t be ridiculous.

In defence, Cesar Azpilicueta is an upgrade on Alvaro Arbeloa. And it appears that coach Vicente del Bosque (a wise old owl who’s another big plus) will be able to call on some actual strikers this time around, notably the Brazilian-born Diego Costa, who’s been tearing it up in La Liga and can expect a turncoat’s reception. There will be no need for the melancholy penumbra that is Fernando Torres. If your biggest worry is that Iker Casillas will be in goal, you’re probably in good shape. Adamantine back five, infinite variables in midfield, sublime imagination, pace where needed, a potent spearhead. Theirs to lose.

Charlie

It’s funny, one of the scraps of thought that comes up constantly in soccer circles (the sport’s equivalent of “Never start a land war in Asia” or “Never follow a hippie to a second location”) is that no European team has ever won a tournament on South American soil — but my pick is a European team, too. Only for me, it’s France.

Adam Levine (l.) and Gerard Pique (r.) in happier times

Okay, so Spain’s relentless excellence makes them more probable to win the tournament, but you can only get 6/1 odds on that happening. (Also, Gerard Pique might be too distracted by Shakira’s flirty friendship with Adam Levine to play well!) For France that number jumps to 25/1, and I love their team — they have thrilling attackers in Paul Pogba, Franck Ribery, and Antoine Griezmann, tough defenders, and a great goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris. Am I crazy?

Rob

“No European team has ever won on South American soil” — this is true garbage. True in that it’s true, but also garbage as far as prognosticatory value goes. The last time a World Cup was played in South America was 1978, when the hosts Argentina won with a little help from their friends in the presiding military junta (needing a four-goal margin of victory against a decent Peru to progress, los Albicelestes conjured a 6-0 victory). Yes, heat and humidity will be tough, but my pick, Spain, are a keep-ball side, so the worse conditions get, the better for them. If a South American team wins, it will not be because they’re playing in South America, but because there are three very, very good South American sides at the moment, in Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia (lo siento, Uruguay y Chile!).

Seems legit.

As for France, you’re not crazy. Further evidence that crackpot UEFA President and professional Frenchman Michel Platini has sold his soul to Satan (Sepp Blatter) can be found in their being potted with Ecuador, Honduras, and Switzerland (the Group of Undeath). They’ve been known to blow up spectacularly and the fallout from l’affaire Anelka still haunts les Bleus, but while their unit is talented it’s probably just too inexperienced. You mentioned their attackers, and I love the prospect of Raphaël Varane and Eliaquim Mangala at the back. But Lloris isn’t “great” yet — hypertalented but flaky — while their Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema blows hot and cold, and occasionally very cold.

Charlie

Wait, l’affaire Anelka?

Rob

Domenech was the original Anthony Davis.

At halftime in France’s 2010 World Cup game against Mexico, he told coach Raymond Domenech: “Go fuck yourself, you dirty son of a bitch.” So the self-fucked dirty son of a bitch sent him home. In fairness to Anelka, this is the same Domenech who proposed to his girlfriend live in the post-game interview following France’s exit from Euro 2008 and based his team selection on astrology. (Sample quote: “When I have got a Leo in defence, I’ve always got my gun ready, as I know he’s going to want to show off at one moment or another and cost us.”)

Charlie

Hold on, I’m going to reach out to Raymond Domenech and see if he wants to be best friends and hang out constantly. Be right back.

This is not classy at all, Brazil.

While I’m gone, one bet I’ve noticed — if you like France to go deep into the tournament, you can get 75/1 odds that they’ll face Brazil in the final. What do you make of Brazil?

Rob

I’m baffled that they’re favorites. Other than Thiago Silva and (sometimes) Neymar, they’re a little short of top personnel, and totally short of strikers. Although there is some realism in Brazil about this vintage, the Seleção will contend with home disadvantage. The pressure will be immense, and if any of the teams are likely to take note of protests and security concerns, it will be the hosts (I doubt Mario Balotelli has a strong opinion about last year’s Goiânia bus fare increases from R$2.70 to R$3.00). Prepare to be overwhelmed with journoblahblah about Samba Boys, “carnival atmosphere” and erroneous references to favelas, and underwhelmed by the performances on the pitch.

Jonny Evans does not have the answer you’re looking for, Mario.

Charlie

The odds of Brazil’s rival Argentina winning the Cup are 5/1, which seem awfully short to me. I’m guessing a lot of what Vegas sharps call “public money” is behind that — the Messi brand, that truism about a South American team being more likely to win…is this a safe bet, or a foolish one?

Rob

Foolish — you’re dead right: far too short. Sergio Aguero with Messi up front is grounds for suspicion that Argentina will be in the mix, and a virtual guarantee that they’ll be sumptuous entertainment. Unfortunately, their middling defence, backed up by an uninspiring goalie, is likely to hamper a real push for the summit.

Neymar and Gisele hope that Rob is correct about Argentina’s WC prospects.

A more intriguing bet to me, at 25/1: Colombia. Even without Falcao, I would expect them to go well and reach the knockout stages — their group is a gimme. But if he’s doing this kind of thing, we can expect to see them at the business end and hopefully no one gets murdered when they go home, which is broadly what happened last time they were considered potential WC winners, in 1994. We did get a good 30 for 30 out of it, but that in no way justifies the senseless taking of life. Would not fancy taking a penalty in a shoot-out (too soon!). If they can settle on who to play at the back (they should probably take a chance and pair their doddering captain Mario Yepes with the rugged youngster Eder Balanta, who’s got scouts and football saddos like me very excited), they’re in with a shout.

Charlie

Football saddo (subsp. Americana)

Please tell me why football saddos are excited about Eder Balanta in fifteen words or less, because this is the first time I’ve ever even seen his name, and I’m still 60% sure that the Eder Balanta is a Romanian coupe that runs forever but occasionally catches fire when you start the windshield wipers.

Rob

Strong, swift, skillful. Already being compared with River Plate legend Daniel Passarella. Judge for yourself.

Charlie

Since we seem to agree that this might be the World Cup to back a European team, what about Belgium at 15/1? They’ve been the trendy dark horse so long they’re more like an albino horse at this stage, but they have Eden Hazard, who, despite his name still sounding like a crossword clue to me (answer: APPLE), might have been the second best player in England this season.

Rob

Eden Hazard’s fashion role model is John Stockton.

I’m predicting 2014 will put an end to that tedious parlour game “Name a famous Belgian.” The highest ranked of the low countries has a ridiculous squad, deep-filled with quality. Football hipsters have long understood that Axel Witsel is elasticated, Thibaut Courtois a theatrical miracle-worker, and Romelu Lukaku a hot knife through butter, but now they’ll join the likes of Hazard and Kompany as known knowns in the football cosmos. Unfortunately they’ll be managed by a genuinely clueless coach, and have a tendency towards childish off-field squabbles and tantrums — they’re the new Dutch in that sense. If Mark Wilmots can be a mixture of Sir Alex Ferguson and Kindergarten Cop, Belgium have a chance. But, realistically, watch out for them in 2018.

Another European possibility is Germany, at 5/1. “The best team in Europe (after Spain)” — this threatens to be the epitaph for a cohort trying not to follow Michael Ballack into the box marked Great Players who never won anything. This is the last chance for big names like Schweinsteiger, Mertesacker, and Grosskreutz and small names like Özil, Lahm, and Reus to set things right. Geriatric marksman Miroslav Klose will be looking forward to surpassing Fat Ronaldo’s record for most World Cup goals, but for Germany to go all the way will require lifetime bests across the squad. They may have to rely on coach Joachim Löw providing something more than a moptop and textbook smart casual from the touchline.

Jogi Löw’s fashion role model is Jogi Löw.

Charlie

I think we’re both down on a lot of the other teams, but let’s do a quick-fire round: Holland at 25/1?

Rob

An invisible Nazgul lifting Arjen Robben off the pitch.

Fantastically hard group, their star players (Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie) are past their sell-by date, except for Arjen Robben, who won’t be able to able to do it all alone — though that won’t stop him trying, the selfish, slap-headed, diving* git. (*You call this flopping, right?)

Charlie

Uruguay at 28/1? It seems impossible to believe Luis Suarez won’t have a moment. My personal dream is that he bites off someone’s nose AND they’re a black person that he has just racially insulted.

Rob

I’m sure he will have a moment, it’s just that it’ll be against Costa Rica — they’re over-reliant on El Chupacabra and his strike partner Edinson Cavani. Too much mediocrity elsewhere.

Charlie

Cristiano wants Marcelo and Leo to stay professional until after the final whistle blows.

Cristiano Ronaldo? (I think that’s how you spell Portugal, also 28/1, during WC years, at least.)

Rob

Ronaldo is palpably great, and it’s possible he will win one or two games on his own, but not six or seven.

Charlie

I hesitate to even ask, but: England, again at 28/1?

Rob

File photo of Rob at an England match.

England are shit and only the cheapest chauvinism would prompt me to predict anything other than the first plane home.

In the interests of transatlantic politesse: I feel the USA (125/1) is weaker than usual in this tournament, or am I just missing Clint Dempsey and his musical stylings? Bets?

Charlie

One of the most joyful moments of my life was Landon Donovan’s last-gasp goal against Algeria — I was watching in Cape Town, and you could hear Americans coming out onto balconies all across the city to scream.

No, really, competent.

The World Cup is our one genuine chance to be underdogs on the world stage. I don’t love this team, and everyone knows they’re in the #OMGGroupOfDeath, but they’ll be athletic, disciplined, and smart, and they have a competent coach. There’s very little chance they’ll win the tournament, but for those reasons I might have a flutter, to use the British phrase, on them actually WINNING their group, at 8/1, because the other heavyweights have all battered each other to a draw. Put $10 on it and pray to Kyle Beckerman’s hair.

Rob

I’m assuming that’s a typo and USA are 80-1 to top G. As for Mr Beckerman, there isn’t a rosary long enough.

A young Kyle Beckerman.

A similarly canny tip: When the team you fancy stumbles during the group, have courage and back them when their odds consequently lengthen. My mate Barry did this when Spain lost to Switzerland early in the 2010 World Cup and made a packet. Well, that’s what he says. True or not, it is possible to fluff your lines on first night and live to tell the tale. The tale of how you won the World Cup.

Charlie

I’m a bit of a computer nerd, so I can confirm this is photoshopped. Look at the pixels if you don’t believe me.

Okay, let’s move to the most fun gambling category, the Golden Boot, an award that goes to the tournament’s top goalscorer. I want to introduce this category by asking: What is your favorite Lionel Messi goal?

Rob

He hasn’t scored it yet. But how about a slightly atypical (smashed and placed) one against Brazil, and an orgasmic dink against Mexico? I could even watch him take penalties — as long as the goalkeeper’s not made of cardboard.

Charlie

I’m asking, obviously, because he’s the prohibitive favorite to win the Golden Boot. (Also, call me a traditionalist, but his Getafe goal will never be surpassed.) We probably agree, however, that he’s not the best bet, even at 7/1.

Rob

If you put five dollars on every candidate other than Messi, you’d make money unless he wins (which I’d pay to see anyway) so it’s kind of attractive to action simpletons like me.

The Boot comes in two models. There’s the rarely worn GB Narrow, also known as the Salenko, where you binge against a poor team and then depart after the group stage with six goals. Then there’s the snazzier Jairzinho fit, where you spread your goal-getting over more or less a whole tournament.

Thomas Muller and his girlfriend went to Oktoberfest.

The last two winners (both German, both terrific value again — Miroslav Klose 40-1*; Thomas Muller 39-1) got 5 each, but I think we’re looking at more this time. Falcao and Karim Benzema (both 40-1) are the likeliest to combine a glut in the groups with stamina to keep scoring throughout the competition. More cunning options include Edin Dzeko (100-1) who will get at least four games, two of which (Iran and Nigeria) could prove bountiful. Dull but decent is Fred (33-1), perhaps with a double on Brazil champions (66-1). However, my secret hunches are Marco Reus and Alexis Sanchez (both 80-1).

*I just backed Klose at 70-1 (!) — caipirinhas on me.

Charlie

It’s incredible that Klose won the Golden Boot in 2006, and could easily win it again this time around. Did we even have computers in 2006? Had the airplane been invented? It’s all foggy.

This isn’t funny, come on, be serious please.

To me the pick of this bunch is Dzeko. It’s very easy to imagine his Bosnian team putting up a bunch of goals against Nigeria and Iran, and I think they’ll advance beyond the group stage, too. Those odds are probably only available because he doesn’t start regularly for Manchester City.

The other bet I love here is Sergio Aguero at 14/1 — twice the odds of Messi, same schedule, and plays in a more advanced role. And as an Arsenal fan, who will have nightmares about his depredations on our backline long after his retirement, I have to say that even an aging Didier Drogba seems like a decent bet at 150/1.

This man is a world-class athlete.

A question: Doesn’t Wayne Rooney seem too long at 50/1? This feels like a backlash to a backlash. England are usually good for the quarterfinals, and his miserable season at Manchester United might have people forgetting just how deadly a striker he is. Also, he had sex with a grandmother once!

Rob

Before I get to Wayne, I’d just express a teeny caveat about Aguero: fitness. Hamstrings are the devil for explosive forwards, and he’ll need time to regain sharpness and confidence in his body.

Wayne Rooney’s wife does not want him near this woman.

Body confidence was not lacking, by the way, in the legendary Merseyside nan charmingly known locally as “The Auld Slapper” who, one sweet, sensual evening, treated Rooney, the hope of a nation, to £45 worth of erotic whatnot. To answer your question: the memory of a Rooney who coltishly terrorised defences at the 2004 European Championships has sustained a widespread delusion for an entire decade now. He’s never been that kind of devastating presence again at club level, let alone in the England shirt.

How come? “Lifestyle choices,” Alex Ferguson, numerous injuries, and hair transplants (he should have gone full Piven like Gianfranco Zola). There’s nothing to suggest anything’s changed — he’s always been reliable for Man Utd, and very occasionally he’ll do something extraordinary. But hopes of him becoming truly great disappeared a long time ago. The prospect of him playing the Luis Suarez role with the other two thirds of Liverpool’s deadly triumvirate, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, should be mouthwatering, but after Rooney’s appalling performance in South Africa, your gambling dollars are better directed elsewhere — Robben, Hazard, and Ribéry all offer similar odds.

Charlie

Some of Zlatan’s goals have been masterpieces this season. (I’ll see myself out.)

By the way, what a shame that the world’s third-greatest player, Zlatan, won’t be at the Cup, especially after a Times article revealed that a) he regularly hunts moose and b) he asked Twitter to extend its 140-character limit for him and him alone. I might see if I can put $10 on him in case he parachutes into Rio to announce he’s obtained Korean citizenship in time to score six goals in their opening match.

Rob

If we were talking about North Korea, I’d make it $100. An echt soccer genius, but would Ibra be up for the standard-issue coiffure? I can imagine him getting along with Dennis Rodman. Then fighting him for the right to succeed Kim Jong-un.

Charlie

A lot of the names will be the same, but let’s briefly discuss the odds for the Golden Ball, given to the player of the tournament. Your recent winners, Diego Forlan, Zinedine Zidane, and Oliver Kahn all embody a trend I’ve noticed: the winner of this rarely comes from the team that wins the tournament. For that reason I’m intrigued by Mario Götze at 33/1. He’s a transcendent talent on a team that will make it far without winning.

Unlike German teammate Thomas Muller, Mario Götze did not go to Oktoberfest, but things still worked out for him.

On the other hand the Golden Ball also has a whiff of “lifetime achievement award” to it. What about Xavi at 40/1?

Rob

A purist’s choice — the delectable Andrea Pirlo (50-1) also falls into that category, but it’s worth remembering that this is a contest historically skewed hugely in favour of attackers (sixteen out of nineteen awards). I think Götze’s charms will be a little too subtle for the judging panel. If you trust Aguero’s hamstrings, he could win at 25/1 in a fashion similar to Romario in 1994. You can get the same odds for Hazard, who definitely has the bulletproof ego required to perform under pressure.

Andrea Pirlo with the swaggiest of all Panenkas.

I also like the idea of a consolation prize to the hosts when they don’t quite make it: in the homeland of The Alchemist, I’m looking at turning Silva (Thiago) into gold, and at 100-1, he’s a potentially lucrative pick. My hail mary would be Julio Cesar: a string of heroic performances to take Brazil to the brink, chuck in a shoot-out solo for good measure. He’s so long he’s not even quoted — could you find him at 250-1 a few weeks before the Cup starts?

Charlie

The water fountain is still in therapy.

One more longshot for you: I like the Chilean playmaker Arturo Vidal at 66/1 — a player who could single-handedly propel his team deep into the tournament, à la Forlan. The odds are only that long because his team and haircut are both terrible.

Before we finish, I want to do a couple of prop bets. I mentioned the US team at 8/1 — give me another long shot who could win their group.

Rob

I like Greece at 9/1, who conceded just four goals in ten qualifying game and have a versatile attacking threat in Kostas Mitroglou. (6/4 for Angela Merkel to collect prize money (minimum $8 million) “on their behalf.”)

Charlie

Anything else on the board that you like? My friend Paul points out that Italy have drawn at least one game in every World Cup since 1966 — he’s putting some cash on draws against England and Uruguay.

Rob

The odds aren’t up for this yet, but there’s a good chance no African team will make the last sixteen. Karmic punishment for the vuvuzelas? Ghana and Cameroon are in horrible Groups; Ivory Coast are too decrepit to take advantage of a benign draw; Nigeria will contest the Wooden Spoon in F with Iran; Algeria are making up the numbers.

Please call us decrepit to our faces.

Charlie

Because I’m a US fan, I know for a fact that Ghana, who have booted us from the last two World Cups, will make it out of the Group — save your money on that one.

Rob

So, US win the group, Ghana through, Germany and Portugal out. I think I may take up bookmaking. But if you’re serious, $10 apiece on Portugal (10-1) and Germany (33-1) to come last.

Charlie

You, after betting on Edin Dzeko.

Okay, let’s bottom-line it for people. What’s the single bet you like best of all these? For me it’s Edin Dzeko to win the Golden Boot at 100/1. I think those odds are about four times too long.

Rob

Not only four times too long, but twelve-and-a-half times less likely (apparently) than USA winning Group D (my least favorite). I might submit to the desiderative and take France to win (at 25-1) plus that double for a final v Brazil (75-1), because I know they’d do it in style, and the longer a host stays in, the better the feel of the tournament.

Charlie

The American in me.

A France-Brazil final, with a Bosnian top goalscorer — the Men in Blazers are fond of saying that soccer has been America’s sport of the future since 1972, and if that’s the outcome, the wait might go on. The gambler in me hopes that we’re right about our top picks, but the American in me hopes that we’re treated to an England-USA final. 750/1, according to the bookies. If I win that one, the trip to Russia in 2018 is on me.