Updated: Jan 1, 2020
There have been a lot of power rankings out there for the World Cup. I even wrote one myself back when the field was first established. And I encourage you to go check out the various cases from the experts. But there’s another time-honored way of assessing the odds: looking at what the bookies think. After all, when hard cash is on the table, there’s a serious incentive to get things right.
As we’ll see, that incentive does depend on significant trading. When small amounts are on the table, there isn’t enough incentive for the big traders to swoop in and correct the market, and mistakes will endure. So don’t take this as definitive—merely as one way among many others to assess the odds.
Implied odds of winning the World Cup
So here are the implied probabilities of winning the tournament, based on betting odds:France20USA20Germany13England11Netherlands5Japan5Brazil5Australia3Canada3Spain3Sweden3Norway2China1Italy1New Zealand1South Korea1Scotland1Argentina0Chile0South Africa0Jamaica0Nigeria0Cameroon0Thailand0
These numbers reflect a composite view from four different betting companies (bet365, skybet, William Hill, and betfair) listed at Oddschecker. Importantly, these are not the actual percentages at which you could make a bet. Instead, these are the implied probabilities once the odds are re-weighted on a 100% scale. For example, you’d only actually make $3.50 on a one dollar bet on the US, even though the odds suggest it would be $4, because the betting company has set their odds so that they’re only required to pay out one dollar for every 1.4 dollars coming in.
With that caveat in mind, we can still use these implied probabilities to make a rough assessment of what bettors think of the various teams. And for the most part, the answer is: they agree with the pundits. But there are a few exceptions.
Outside the top two, about which almost everyone seems to agree, many might put Australia and the Netherlands next, rather than Germany and England as reflected in the betting markets. And there are a few head scratchers–teams that seem to be getting credit for results in the distant rear-view mirror.
Crowdsourcing the odds
To dig into the differences a little more, I ran a series of twitter polls in early May, based on the betting odds at the time. The numbers have changed slightly since then, but not enough to make much of a difference. In the polls, I asked readers to decide whether they would buy or sell based on the implied probabilities. In most cases, things were within a fairly narrow band from 33%-66%–precisely what you’d expect if the odds were set well. But there were a few exceptions, which are worth digging into.
First, 67% preferred to buy the US at a 19% chance, while 68% wanted to buy France at those same odds. That suggests that the favorites might be slightly stronger than bettors currently think.
Lower down, a healthy 77% wanted to sell Japan at 5%. That seems reasonable to me. Japan were a regular participant in the finals of the big tournaments in the first half of the decade, which might bring them some cache. But those teams are long gone, and it would be quite surprising if this Japan repeated those performances. Similarly, 79% wanted to sell Norway at 2%. Now, a 2% chance is extremely small. It means that Norway would win once if they played this tournament fifty times. But based on the team Norway is bringing, that probably does feel optimistic.
But the biggest margin, by quite a ways, was the 90% who wanted no part of Brazil, even at 4% odds. Again, the legacy of Brazil might be influencing the betting line. Because this Brazil team isn’t even a shadow of their former greatness. I make it a habit to never bet against Marta, but I think you can make an exception here.
Conclusions: How do the markets help us?
As I noted above, these discrepancies don’t necessarily mean that there is easy money to be made here. After all, even if the odds are ‘wrong’ about Australia, and they actually have a 20% chance, that still means that 80% of the time you’ll lose your money. Plus, given the way the odds are stacked, the bookmakers are almost certain to rake in big profits regardless of what happens. You might beat the crowds, but you’ll rarely beat the house.
And yet, looking at the odds can help us think through the tournament in useful ways. For one thing, the sheer range of options is worth noting. There are definitely favorites, but even if you combine the chances of the US and France winning, it barely reaches 40%. That means it’s odds-on that someone who wasn’t a ‘favorite’ wins the tournament.
This is also a reason to be careful about drawing too many conclusions at the end of the tournament. The winner will deserve all the accolades they receive, but let’s not forget that there’s a great deal of randomness here. Victory is never foreordained. It takes real work, real skill, real performances on the field to take home the title. But it also takes some luck.
This also helps illustrate just how hard it is to put together a string of knockout victories against tough competition. The US Women’s National Team in 2019 is probably the best squad that this country has ever assembled. If not, it’s extremely close. Even so, in four of five worlds, they go home unsatisfied.
All of which is to say: it’s a very different world now than it was in the tournaments of the 1990s, or even the 2000s. The game has grown, talent has spread, and victory is much harder to come by. That significantly increases the likelihood of failure by the best teams. But it should also make victory taste that much sweeter for whichever team is lucky enough to make it to the top of the hill.