Maybe, like Hank Rutherford Hill, you hate soccer. But what if you’re heading to Las Vegas sometime before June for a vacation or a work conference? It might be tempting to throw down a few bucks and pick on an outright 2014 World Cup winner, right?
Even if you dislike the sport with every fiber of your being, it’s going to be awfully hard for you to avoid the tournament come June when ESPN gives it the full-court press. If you’re a “sports fan” you’ll have to accept that from June through mid-July the World Cup is a part of your life. Sorry. If you decide to put some money on a team to win, it gives you a vested interest at the very least.
I’m here to help.
If you want to be boring and play it safe — take Brazil. Bovada lists the tournament hosts at 3-to-1 odds, which isn’t terrible since you can make some money but you better do it quickly before the line drops. Everybody, of course loves Neymar and Brazil — you hope that won’t influence the match officials, but it’s probably not worth holding your breath on that front.
And if you want to be a frontrunner wearing a yellow jersey and an Anderson Varejão wig, so be it.
Pre-Confederations Cup last June there were questions about Brazil, but after Phil Scolari led the team to victory there the Seleção have onceagain become the clear favorites. We’re almost to the point where if anybody other than Brazil captain Thiago Silva lifts the World Cup trophy on July 14 in Rio it’ll be considered a shock.
Four teams: Brazil, Argentina (9/2); Germany (5/1) and Spain (7/1) are the clear odds-maker’s favorites. After the list of teams with a semi-realistic chance of winning the tournament (and England) goes as follows: Belgium (14/1); France (20/1); Colombia (22/1); the Netherlands (22/1); Italy (22/1); Uruguay (25/1); England (28/1); Portugal (28/1) and Chile (40/1). Anyone else would be a total shock, so sorry Mexico.
Which of the favorites offers the best value?
A site like Bovada listing Spain at only 7-to-1 is puzzling and almost makes you worry those odds are too good to be true. Are players like Xavi at the end of their international careers? Yes. Is it a longshot one nation would repeat as both European Champion and World Cup champion in a six-year spell? Probably. Even so, Spain at 7-to-1 feels very low and is a strong potential to make some money. There are cracks for certain, but until somebody shows they can get around the tiki-taka passing in a knockout situation you have to consider La Roja a favorite even if Brazil humbled them last June in the final of the Confederations Cup.
It will be fascinating to see if naturalizing Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian striker Diego Costa enhances or detracts from Spain, which famously played most of Euro 2012 without a striker … and Fernando Torres. Costa could be one of many changes for coach Vincente Del Bosque to contemplate as we zero in on June. Will this still be the Xavi team or will players like Bayern Munich’s Thiago be thrust into more important roles, with Spain playing more direct soccer?
The question you ask yourself with Spain: do they go out with one last hurrah or flame out spectacularly like most teams do? Spain has taken a step backward, but there is still money to be had at 7-to-1, if only on the form of Andres Iniesta.
Which favorite should you avoid?
Germany. There are reports the Germans, specifically Mesut Özil were booed during their friendly 1-0 win vs. Chile earlier this month. It’s not time for Jogi Löw’s team to panic, but I get the sense Germany’s reputation’s been massively overrated in the span of the last year or so. Everyone’s been riding the German the bandwagon, so I’d worry about the players buying into the hype and simply expecting to win by process of throwing their cleats onto the field.
Can any nation boast an array of attacking midfilders like Özil, Toni Kroos, Mario Götze, Julian Draxler, Marco Reus, Andre Schürrle et al.? No, but they all can’t play at the same time, meaning Löw will have to find a lineup that works right away, putting egos aside. Defensively the Germans still worry me despite Per Mertesacker’s fine form at Arsenal this campaign and No. 1 keeper Manuel Neuer’s overall brilliance. (Germany breezed through it’s qualifying group but still allowed 10 goals in 10 matches — the highest total of any European first-place group finisher.)
If Germany decides to play with a confirmed striker, those duties likely fall to Miroslav Klose. He might be second all-time with 14 World Cup goals, but he’s also 35. Something to consider.
It’s easy to fall into the trap that Bayern Munich is the best club team in the world, so Germany ought to be favored because of it. Remember under Pep Guardiola Philip Lahm, the German captain, is playing more in the midfield as opposed to right back. Many of the key players for Bayern: David Alaba, Dante, Thiago, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery aren’t German.
Germany’s risen concurrently with Spain and Italy over the last four major tournaments, but hasn’t been able to get past either nation. Perhaps Bayern Munich finally winning the Champions League behind Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Thomas Müller carries over into the World Cup. Odds are Germany still makes a deep run, but there are a lot more red flags in 2014 than there would have been a year ago.
Is there any value in second-tier European nations?
Belgium is a strong team on paper and got a manageable group (Russia, South Korea, Algeria) and 14-to-1 is nice oddest, but expecting a team with players who’ve never played in a Euro or World Cup is asking a lot. By the same token, why not put a flier on the Red Devils with those favorable of odds. Eden Hazard’s form — as long as Jose Mourinho doesn’t burn him out at Chelsea — gives you some confidence and if you pick Belgium to win you’re going to look like the biggest genius ever. You can never accurately measure how much this matters, but from captain Vincent Kompany on down there does seem to be a lot of camaraderie throughout the Belgian squad despite the mix of ethnic backgrounds and the Flanders/Walloon divide, which has submarined Belgian teams in the past.
While we’re in the Low Countries, stay away from the Netherlands — a finalist in 2010. Robben and Robin van Persie in the same lineup never seems to work out great once they’re no longer playing the Moldovas of the world. If Wesley Sneijder turns back the clock to 2010 maybe the Dutch make a run but there are a lot more holes in the make-up of the team than you’d think. The level of Dutch elite-level talent isn’t where it was a decade ago, especially in defense. If the Dutch lose their first game to Spain, they face a win or go home match with Chile in the final group game. Losing Roma’s Kevin Strootman to a knee injury only decreases the Dutch chances for a deep run.
France at 20-to-1 is intriguing, but can you ever trust this current French team that always feels about two seconds away from a self-inflicted implosion? There are a lot of nice pieces with France who are in the midst of great club seasons: Samir Nasri, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba come to mind, but again, can you back a non-Zidane version of Les Bleus?
England … haha, pass. Well no, Rooney scored from near the halfway line while Beckham watched, so the Three Lions are a shoo-in. Obviously.
You could actually get a ton of value if with Portugal if you think Ronaldo can carry the team for a month … which he’s never been able to do previously. It’s not exactly Ronaldo’s fault he happens to be the best player in the world playing on a national team that never produces a truly world-class striker. In order for Portugal to win the tournament Ronaldo probably needs to play like Diego Maradonna in 1986 for Argentina, but in 2014 I’m leery one player — even one of CR7’s impeccable standard — can carry a team through four knockout games in the span of two weeks. Ask yourself this is Ronaldo going to be the guy who was unplayable in the playoff vs. Sweden or the petulant cry-baby he was after Real Madrid lost to Barcelona this weekend?
It leaves us with boring old Italy, which won the 2006 World Cup, couldn’t get out of the group in 2010 and then made the finals of Euro 2012. If Andrea Pirlo is healthy the Azzurri will make a run behind coach Cesare Prandelli. The fact Prandelli can build his team around the Juventus core is a bonus, meaning Italy should be among the most cohesive teams in Brazil, which is important when you have Mario Balotelli prominently involved. If Giuseppe Rossi is 100 percent after his knee injury for Fiorentina earlier this year Italy is a definite darkhorse.
Does anybody other than Brazil or Argentina from South America have a shot to win it?
You, ahem, bet! Colombia likely won’t have team captain Falcao healthy in time for the finals but have a lot of offensive weapons and a group (Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan) that they can navigate. Even so, Colombia might be a smidge overrated. FIFA has them as the No. 5 team in the world at the moment. Colombia has the feel of one of those teams that could make a run to the semifinals or lost all three of its group games. Either or, with little middle ground.
Uruguay at 25-to-1 is maybe the best value on the board, if only due to the play of Luis Suarez at Liverpool. In 25 EPL games this season Suarez has an astounding 28 goals and zero have come from the penalty spot. Oh right, Uruguay is grouped with England.
It’s not only Suarez. Uruguay is the reigning Copa America champion and coach Oscar Tabarez is among the best minds in the international game. La Celeste are in a group with two big-name European teams — England and Italy — but we’ve seen Suarez score at will against English opposition. The combination of two star attackers — Suarez and Edinson Cavani — along with a battle-tested group and good coach is very appealing. (The fact Uruguay won the 1950 World Cup in Brazil has zero point zero bearing on the current team, although expect plenty of talk about that team on ESPN during the 2014 tournament.)
One big concern for Uruguay — captain Diego Lugano, now 33, appears totally washed up in his brief appearances at West Bromwich Albion this season in England. Keeper Fernando Muslera can win you games or lose you games due to his unorthodox tendencies inside his own box. Still, on South American soil Uruguay is the best semi-longshot on the board if you want to take a big risk.
If you’re really ballsy, Chile at 40-to-1 isn’t totally crazy. Chile however doesn’t have much of a margin for error in a group with Spain and the Netherlands. Chile has plenty of speed all over the field and a star player in Arturo Vidal, but they’ll likely end up leaving a positive impression more than they will winning the tournament.