Predicting the World Cup winner is tougher than it seems

Brazil's soccer players Filipe Luis, center left, and Neymar practice with teammates during a training session in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, June 12, 2018. Brazil will face Switzerland on June 17 in the group E for the soccer World Cup. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Andre Penner/AP Photo
Brazil will face Switzerland on Sunday to open World Cup play.

In 1930, the Associated Press described host nation Uruguay as the favorites before the first ever World Cup.

“Playing on their home field, the Uruguayans are locally favored to win,” wrote the AP. “Their two Olympic championships won at Paris in 1924 and at Amsterdam in 1928 have placed the kickers of this tiny country in the spotlight of the soccer world.”

The prognostication proved correct, as Uruguay triumphed over Argentina (the AP’s other identified contender) in the brand new tournament.


With the pattern set early, it’s largely been a continuation of pre-tournament favorites lifting the trophy at subsequent World Cups. While there have been exceptions to this (Uruguay’s second title in 1950 being one of them), surprise champions have continued to be far and few between.

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Arguably the World Cup’s greatest upset winner was West Germany in 1954, who defeated the heavily favored Hungarians in the “Miracle at Bern.” Yet given Germany’s subsequent emergence as a soccer powerhouse, the “miraculous” nature may have dulled in retrospect.

In the last two World Cups, Spain (winners in 2010) and Germany (the reigning champions) were seen among the pre-tournament favorites. Interestingly, Brazil’s last triumph (2002) came in a rare tournament where the Seleção weren’t seen as frontrunners. Still, at 8/1 odds, a team led by Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldihno were far from unheralded.

Heading into the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, it’s another case of the usual suspects. Brazil (4/1 odds), Germany (5/1), Spain (11/2) and France (13/2) rank in the upper echelon. That said, history suggests one of the big four will crash out in the group stage. In almost every iteration of the world tournament, one major contender is upset early (Spain, Italy and England all did so in 2014).

Beyond that, Belgium (10/1) and Argentina (10/1) are in a second tier, with England (16/1), Portugal (22/1), Uruguay 25/1), Croatia (33/1) and Colombia (40/1) occupying the remaining positions that could plausibly be called “contenders.”


Saudi Arabia (listed anywhere between 750/1 and 1000/1) and tournament newcomers Panama (500/1 and 750/1) bring up the rear among most oddsmakers.

One emendation to the oddsmaker’s craft was the shocking triumph of Leicester City in the English Premier League in 2016. Listed before the season at 5000/1 odds to win the vaunted Premier League, a team that was expected to battle against relegation stunned the soccer world.

This has perhaps altered the expectations of even the most seasoned prognosticator. While it was only four years ago that 4000/1 odds could’ve been attained on Costa Rica (who, incidentally, defied expectations to reach the quarterfinals), even the biggest of underdogs garner more conservative odds in 2018.

Here’s a look at the pre-tournament odds from Irish bookmaker Paddy Power Betfair:

Brazil: 4/1


Germany: 5/1

Spain: 11/2

France: 13/2

Belgium: 10/1

Argentina: 10/1

Saudi Arabia: 1000/1

Las Vegas has a slightly different take:

Brazil: 7/2

Germany: 4/1

Spain: 6/1

France: 6/1

Argentina: 9/1

Belgium: 10/1