World Cup: Betting the Draw
by Trevor Whenham - 5/28/2010
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No sporting event should ever end in a tie. That's why I love the shootout in hockey, and I loathe the NFL's ridiculous overtime rules. It's also soccer's biggest flaw. Because teams get one point for a draw in the World Cup it would be possible for a team to advance to the second round without ever winning a game. That's not how it should be. Ties, or draws in soccer-speak, are also one of the biggest headaches for soccer bettors - especially those who don't bet the sport regularly.
Soccer is already a big adjustment for a lot of bettors because it involves money line betting. Most North American bettors are more familiar with the point spread betting more common in football and basketball. The shift from point spread to money line is tough enough as it is, but when you add in three options to consider it's a real headache. the draw really does give us three things to consider. You can't just decide which team you like better - you also need to consider whether liking neither team is the most attractive option.
Here's a look at six things about draws to consider as you get ready for the World Cup:
Recent occurrence - To get a sense of how common draws are I started by looking at what happened this year in the four best leagues in the world. the results were remarkably consistent. In England's Premier League there were a total of 380 games played. A total of 96 of those games ended in draws - 26.3 percent. Italy's Serie A saw 107 of their 380 games end in a draw - 28.2 percent. Spain's La Liga ended with 95 draws in 380 games - 25 percent. Germany's Bundesliga has fewer teams, but the results were similar - 86 of 306 games, or 28.1 percent. That's not a very wide range between the four leagues. Overall, 26.6 percent of games in these four leagues ended in a draw.
World Cup occurrence - To get a sense of whether the numbers in the regular leagues represented about what we could expect in the World Cup this year I looked back at the last three World Cups. In 2006 11 of the 48 first round games ended in a draw - 22.9 percent. In 2002 it was 14 of 48, or 29.2 percent. 1998 had the highest rate, with a full third of games - 16 of 48 - ending tied. In the last three years, then, 28.5 percent of World Cup first round games have ended in a draw. That's 28.5 percent of games which is within range of what happened in the big leagues this year - especially when you factor in the smaller sample size here.
Elimination round games aren't able to end in a draw, so they play extra time and then have penalty kicks to find a winner. Games that ended in extra time, though, could be considered draws for this purpose because they would have ended as draws if they were played in the first round. If you factor those in then 17 of 64 games in each of 2006 and 2002 ended in a draw. That's 26.6 percent - exactly the rate we saw in the four leagues this year. This is all a long winded way of saying one simple thing - you have to expect that somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of games this year in the World Cup will end up as a draw. To ignore draws in your handicapping, then, would be a fatal mistake.
The order of the games doesn't really matter - It would be tempting to craft all sorts of theories about which of the three games each team plays is most likely to end in a draw. You could think that it's the first game teams play because they are working out the kinks, or that it's the third game because several of the games don't matter as much. The fact is that it doesn't really matter. In 2006 three of the 16 first games were a draw, and four of 16 of each of the second and third games. In 2002 the first and third games saw four of 16 draws, with six of 16 in the second games. In 2002 it was five in the first and third games, and six in the second. That means that you need to worry about whether the game could be a draw regardless of when the game is being played.
No group is immune to a draw - The last three World Cups has seen a total of 24 different groups of four teams formed. There has been at least one draw in 22 of those 24 groups. No more than one group per year has ended draw-free. That means that if you are mapping out how you think a group is going to play out this year and you don't have at least one draw factored in then you are probably wrong.
Good teams can draw, too - Of the winners of those 24 groups, 14 have finished with at least one draw. The 1998 finalists were Brazil and France. France was undefeated in the tournament, though two of their knockout stage games required extra time. Brazil actually lost a first-round game, and then needed extra time in one game in the later stages. In 2002 the champs from Brazil never lost a game or needed more than regulation time, while the runner-ups from Germany had a first-round draw. In 2006 the champs from Italy had a draw in the first round, and the runners-up from France had two draws in the first round. Italy also needed extra time to win both the semis and the finals.
Sometimes a draw is enough - In some cases all a team really needs is a draw, and that's all they end up with. Group C in 2006 is a classic example. Both Argentina and Netherlands won their first two games, so they had each clinched a playoff spot before they met in the final game of the round robin. Their game was being played before the last games in Group D - the group which their second round opponents would come from - and Portugal and Mexico were close enough that the outcome was uncertain. That meant that the game really didn't matter for Argentina and Netherlands - they couldn't change their fate in a meaningful way by winning or losing. That seems like an ideal situation for a terrible game devoid of meaning and stars, and that's just what it was. It ended 0-0.
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