Ratings can help the armchair fan

The World Cup presents punters with a dilemma. If you’re a transitory fan, who develops an interest and temporary expertise in soccer once every four years, it can be nerve-wracking to get involved in any of the betting. The winner market alone for this World Cup has already traded over $4million, with a month still to go until a ball is kicked, which creates the feeling that others involved may know more than you do.

Well, it’s true to say that soccer markets are liquid, and efficient, but that doesn’t mean that value bets are not to be found and, in many ways, the fleeting soccer punter is probably at an advantage over many of those who inhabit the markets more regularly.

More habitual soccer punters are usually also soccer fans, and fandom is often the worst standpoint from which to profit from sports betting. Rather than adopting the cool, analytical head that is required to assess value, fans are instead infested by emotion and desire, punting based on what they hope will happen, rather than calculating what is likely to.

Using freely-available football ratings is one way to adopt the analytical stance that so many fans will fail to accept: most think their knowledge is enough.

The methodology behind the rankings is imperfect. This leads to some questionable listings, such as when Brazil dropped down to 22nd in the world in 2013, because of only playing friendlies, when all the other teams in the top flight were busy playing rating-enhancing World Cup qualifying games. More recently, Switzerland and Romania have been accused of manipulating their ranking, by playing as few friendlies against weaker opposition as possible, to secure better seedings for international competition.

However, these anomalies aside, the rankings aren’t terrible. Comparing them to my own, Elo-based ratings, we share seven of the top ten teams, and only Belgium (over-rated by FIFA) and Spain (under-rated by FIFA), seem significantly out of place in relation to other teams.

We can be cautiously confident, then, that the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings provide a statistically valid base from which to begin evaluating the World Cup markets. They throw up some interesting betting angles, especially if you scan the soccer pages and read some of the ill-informed opinion about which nations will likely do well in Russia when the action kicks-off.

Lay Africa

Already, several pundits have predicted that 2018 will be the year that African teams establish themselves as world-beaters. These comments echo the same predictions made at previous World Cups by the likes of Pele, who has long prophesised that an African team will soon win soccer’s biggest prize.

The rationale seems sound enough: many African players compete with the best in the top European leagues; management expertise has been brought in to professionalise some of the African national team set-ups; and there are plenty of examples of African teams enjoying isolated success in previous World Cups. Surely, as Pele argues, it is a matter of time?

Well, in 2010, I opposed African teams every time they played, collecting on 17 out of 20 bets. In 2014, I did the same, collecting on 14 out of 17 bets. I predict that a similar approach will reap rewards in 2018, and this is based purely on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings.

The five African teams who have qualified for the World Cup are listed below, with their world ranking according to FIFA (and my own ranking in brackets):

  • Tunisia: 14th (52nd)
  • Senegal: 28th (26th)
  • Morocco: 42nd (43rd)
  • Egypt: 46th (54th)
  • Nigeria: 47th (44th)

The anomaly with regards to Tunisia’s FIFA ranking can be explained by their strong performance in both the 2017 African Cup of Nations and the World Cup qualification matches within the Confederation of African Football, both of which carry what many argue to be a disproportionate weighting in terms of ranking points.

A quick scan of the various group shows that African teams will face a difficult struggle to reach the knockout stages. All of them face at least two rivals who are currently ranked higher. Yet all the African teams will receive high billing and punter interest, because of the individual star players that many of them contain.

I fully expect to collect on a similar number of normal-time lays of African teams at this World Cup as I have in the last two. You will have to decide whether that strategy is right for you too, but even if you think not, refer to the rankings regularly as the action gets under way. They may be a crude statistical tool when compared with some models, but you’ll be surprised how often the market overvalues teams in matches that are ranked lowlier than their opponents.

And if you’re prepared to take this analytical approach, you’ll make better-informed bets than most soccer fans investing at the World Cup.

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