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Beating the odds: The maths of a World Cup 2014 win

Updated Tuesday, 3rd June 2014

Dr Katie Chicot provides us with a statistical insight into this year’s World Cup event.

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A traditional soccer ball or football in a goal net in front of a blue sky Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Michael Flippo |

Love it or hate it, the beautiful game is set to dominate the front and back pages during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and while England may not have the best chance of winning, it doesn’t mean you can’t!  Mathematics, Computing & Technology tutor, Dr Katie Chicot provides us with a statistical insight into this year’s event and gives her top tips that could have us dancing a samba as we watch.

‘As the biggest tournament in world football draws ever closer, talk of winners, losers and of course England’s World Cup campaign ensue. Will we manage to escape from the group stages having progressed to the last 16? Or will we succumb to the pressure and expectations that we seem to suffer from since 1966 – the last and only time England have won the competition?

Whatever your views and opinions, and whoever you decide to support, there is one irrefutable outcome of this World Cup; the bookies will win. But can we extract information from these bookmakers and use statistics to help us to beat them at their own game?

I don’t know anything about football or too much about statistics but a quick crash course from John Haigh, the author of The Hidden Mathematics of Sport has been invaluable.  

The bookies use a technique called ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’, a process of taking into account the collective opinion of a group of individuals; the punters, rather than the sole view of an individual. The odds don’t actually tell you who the bookies think are going to win, just where the money has been placed. The odds of 28:1 for England to win this year’s World Cup tell us more about the feelings of the English public than they do about England’s actual chance of winning.

Online comparison sites that list the best prices for certain bets are a great place to start. Using these, it is clear to see the top 4 favourites to win the 2014 World Cup are Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain respectively.

So how can you predict the potential winners and impress your friends with your new found football knowledge?

Odds beater tip: Bet on the draw

In general people bet for one side or the other to win. People don’t like to bet on a draw. It’s just human nature. Unless, of course, the tournament doesn’t allow for draws, over time you will fare better. In realistic terms you will lose your money more slowly.

Odds beater tip: Bet abroad

We can now bet internationally using online companies. As Brazil are the favourites we could expect a lot of money to be handed to the bookies there. This would be a good place to bet against Brazil.

You can also use betting exchanges. Here bets are being accepted and offered simultaneously through the betting exchange's super computer. The effect to the gambler is that you can place a bet at any odds that some other gambler is happy to accept. The odds that the betting exchanges offer vary widely.

Odds beater tip: Watch the weather

Place your bet on Brazil to draw with a betting company based in Brazil. You would expect the general consensus in Brazil to be that they are going to win, or indeed have a good chance, especially taking into account the temperature and humidity these players will be used to, compared to those in some European countries.

The main reason England will never win in Brazil

Climate plays a huge part in how national teams perform, with England players far more used to playing in temperatures well below 20 degrees, the 30 degree heat  and 80% humidity (of the area of Brazil where England play their matches) will make a massive difference. In those temperatures an athlete working at moderate pace would lose 2.8 L of fluid per hour, just through sweating.

This 4% loss in body mass causes a 25-30% decrement in performance and up to a 50% reduction in Vo2max (aerobic fitness) which is vital for footballers. (These figures are based on a 70 kg male and moderate intensity exercise, and as footballers are generally heavier and working at higher intensities, these figures are modest.)

My pick for the final four is the same as the bookies - Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain. Whilst you’re less likely to lose all your cash by sticking to the favourites, you probably won’t be able to retire on the winnings either!’

Why bookmakers never really lose

To see how the ‘book’ is made, let’s take an example. When a football match is to be played, there are three outcomes: Team A win; Team B win or they draw. Let us suppose the true odds are - 1:1, 7:3, 4:1 respectively. (NB. one way to think about a draw having a 4:1 chance of happening is that if we played the match five times, once there would be a draw.) The bookmaker will then offer odds along the lines of those given in the table below:


Table A Win

True Odds = 1:1

Bookmaker Odds = 5:6

Table B Win

True Odds = 7:3

Bookmaker Odds = 2:1


True Odds = 4:1

Bookmaker Odds = 7:2

By changing the odds in this way the bookmaker decreases the pay out they would make if they had offered the true odds. This is called the ‘overround’. It allows the bookmaker to make a profit over time as individual events don’t guarantee profits for bookies.

Bookmakers have to protect themselves against large pay outs. This is realised by having balanced bets on all three outcomes, a ‘spread’ of bets. To achieve this they shorten the odds on the most popular bet and lengthen them on the less popular outcomes, e.g. the odds change as the event draws closer.

Don’t forget to keep up to date with all things World Cup with our football blog.

If you’re passionate about football and you want to study business, have you thought about combining the two?

This article is based on the original 'Beating the bookies: The maths of a World Cup 2010 win'.





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