World Cup Elimination Round Betting Trends
by Trevor Whenham - 6/24/2014
As we get ready for the elimination games at the World Cup, it's a good time to look at some trends that have emerged over the course of the last three World Cups. (Note - I am ignoring the third-place game in all of these trends because I don't trust the motivation of teams in that game coming off a disappointment in the semifinals).
Higher seed in first round records
All eight games in the round of 16 feature the first-place team in one group facing the second-place team in another group. Winning a group is a tough thing to do that requires strong play, so it's no surprise that the first-place teams have had a strong edge in this round. In 2010 seven of the eight first-place teams won their game. The only exception was Ghana, who beat the Americans in extra time before losing in penalty kicks to Uruguay in the next round. In 2006 the first-place teams were 6-2. Ukraine went on to lose in the next round, while France had obviously underperformed in the round robin because they made it all the way to the finals before losing to Italy on penalty kicks. In 2002 the second-place teams did much better, winning four of their eight Round of 16 games. Each of those teams went on to lose the next time they played a first-place team, though.
Average goals scored in Round of 16 vs. quarterfinals
In 2002 we saw an average of two goals per game in the round of 16 and just 1.25 per game in the quarterfinals. Four years later there were 1.75 in the first elimination round and 1.5 in the second. In 2010 it was 2.75 goals in the round of 16 and 2.5 in the quarterfinals. The sample size is too small to really get excited, but the trend is that there is less scoring in the quarterfinals than the round of 16. There are a couple of reasons why that is likely - teams are more committed to defense as the stakes get higher, and teams are in better form as the tournament progresses, so the games are more evenly-matched generally.
Games "over" 2.5 goals
The total in soccer is most typically set at 2.5 goals, so by looking at games that exceeded that total we can get a rough sense of how successful betting on the over was each year. In 2010 it was profitable to blindly bet the over - nine of the 15 games wound up with more than 2.5 goals scored. That's the only time in the last three tournaments that the over was a good idea. In fact, in the previous two tournaments the "under" was the strong play - just four of 15 games each time had more than 2.5 goals scored.
As teams are more evenly-matched and get more defensively responsible and offensively risk-averse it only makes sense that we see more teams get shut out in the elimination rounds than we would otherwise expect. In 2010 we saw eight teams go through the game without a goal in 15 games, though two came in a scoreless draw that was decided in penalty kicks. That's far fewer than we saw in the two previous tournaments - there were 13 scoreless performances by teams in 2006, including four in scoreless draws, and 12 in 2002, including two in a scoreless draw.
Games ending in penalty kicks
The biggest difference between the round robin and the elimination rounds is that games can't end in draws in the playoffs. In other words, games end like they should - with a winner. While the threat of penalty kicks on a game can throw a bettor into cold sweats, they aren't as common as they might seem. In 2002 and 2010 there were just two games decided by penalty kicks in 15 games each year. There were twice as many in 2006, including the finals, but that is still a small minority of all games. It's a good thing for bettors that they aren't more common because penalty kicks are almost impossible to handicap.
'Surprise' teams in semifinals
2010: Uruguay was a surprise to many, though they only had to beat South Korea and Ghana to get that far, so they didn't pull off any real upsets. They faced the Dutch in the semis and lost. The other semifinalists, Spain and Germany, were far from a surprise.
2006: Nothing particularly unexpected happened here. Germany, Italy, Portugal and France were all among teams viewed as viable contenders, though perhaps Portugal and eventual winners Italy were not among the top tier of teams coming in.
2002: 2006 was not surprising, but 2002 was shocking. Neither Turkey nor South Korea were even remotely viewed as contenders heading into the tournament. Turkey benefited from a very generous path to the semis - they beat only Japan and Senegal. South Korea, though, were giant killers, racking up wins over Italy and Spain before losing to Germany. Turkey lost to Brazil in their semifinal.
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