It’s tempting to view the World Cup Golden Boot winner market as something of a lottery: won by a lucky but otherwise average player whose team comes up against weak opposition. This is wrong on both accounts, and understanding this can give us an edge.
Firstly, the best players for the best teams are the perennial contenders for the Golden Boot. If we list the top three scorers in the World Cups since 1982 – those which bear a direct resemblance to the current version, where seven games are played to win the tournament and there is a group stage of four teams – it’s clear that winning the Golden Boot is seldom a fluke. Almost every player in the table below was their team’s star attacking player, or their main striker, or both. The only surprise contenders were both winners: Salvatore Schillaci went into World Cup 1990 as back-up to Italy’s main striking options, while in 1994 Oleg Salenko scored a remarkable five goals for Russia in one group match against Cameroon.
Do we see any correlation between Golden Boot winners and their likelihood to score in the group stages? Apart from Oleg Salenko, the answer is ‘not really’. The table above shows the Golden Boot top 3’s percentage of goals scored in the group stages: for winners, this is only 41%, dropping to 37% since 1998; for all of those in contention for the Golden Boot, this number rises only to 54%. While you do need to find the net in group games – only Italy’s Rossi managed to finish in the top 3 of the Golden Boot without doing so since 1982 – it’s not the critical factor, as at least half the winner’s goals tend to be scored in the knockout rounds.
But does the quality of opposition in the group stages make a difference? Again, the answer is ‘not really’. FIFA’s world rankings were upgraded and improved about 15 years ago, so looking at the last three tournaments, the below table shows the average ranking of the other three teams in the team’s group. In that time, only Neymar in 2014 can be said to have taken advantage of playing against weak opposition, as he scored all four of his goals against the fairly lowly ranked teams he met in the group stage.
The much clearer conclusion is simple: to stand anything more than a negligible chance of winning the Golden Boot, your team has to go deep into the competition, to the quarter-finals at the absolute minimum. In fact, of the 27 players in the top 3 since 1982, only Salenko has exited the competition earlier than the last 8.
Finding the Golden Boot Winner in 2018
Clearly then we are looking for a team’s star attacking player or main centre-forward, who plays for a team with a near-certain chance of progressing to at least the quarter-finals, and preferably beyond. Particularly weak opposition in the group stage is a bonus, not a prerequisite, and attention should be paid to the opposition’s style too.
The above table lists all the teams with a very high chance of making the quarter-finals, their group, and the rankings of their opposition in those groups. First, the list of winners has been narrowed down to each team’s star man or men. Uruguay are likely to play both their world-class forwards together up front, thus they must both be considered. Brazil should play with a front three of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho – but Coutinho has never been a great goal-scorer and is instead a scorer of great goals. Germany look likely to start Timo Werner up front, but Thomas Muller cannot be discounted given his international goalscoring record, particularly at World Cups. Otherwise, the choice for each team is clear.
We must now plot routes to the quarter-finals. Uruguay will surely win the dire Group A – average ranking a shocking 53 – and progress, and they may score heavily in the process, but they will play Portugal or Spain in the last 16. This is a game for which they would not be favourites, and with the goals already potentially split between Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, they are discounted. On the other hand, either Portugal or Spain are likely to play either Egypt, Russia or (surely not) Saudi Arabia in round two. This gives Diego Costa and Ronaldo a big market advantage, and given that bettors make Spain favourites to win Group B, Diego Costa is very backable at his current traded price as a result.
France and Argentina are in the strongest quarter of the draw but are still both heavily fancied in the markets to make the quarter-finals. Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer on earth – sorry Cristiano Ronaldo fans, it’s clearly true – but he is playing for an ordinary Argentina side which struggled badly throughout qualifying, and which is set up cautiously as a result. France should play one of Croatia, Iceland or Nigeria in the second round and avoid a clear tournament favourite in the quarters. While doubts remain about how Les Bleus will come together on the field, their vast array of star players should create the chances for their star Antoine Griezmann to shine, as he did at Euro 2016. He looks best priced of those short in the market.
The two favourites for the title, Brazil and Germany, are in the other half of the draw. Brazil qualified impressively, but there are plenty of negatives against Jesus and Neymar in the Golden Boot market: they may split Brazil’s goals between them; they are in the strongest group playing three mainly defensive and counter-attacking sides; and Tite has eschewed the ‘samba’ approach, instead setting up his side with two or even three holding midfielders. There are no such doubts about Germany, who will look to dominate and play with a justified swagger throughout. The Germans have nothing to fear from overrated Switzerland, Costa Rica or Serbia in round two either, and are masters of going deep into international tournaments. Timo Werner has cemented himself as the main centre-forward, but given his past record at World Cups, Muller looks overpriced.
Finally, what of England’s quarter of the draw? The Three Lions are in a group with much-fancied Belgium, and their other Group G opponents Tunisia and Panama will play defensively in the group stages. Whichever nation tops the group, they will likely face either Poland or Colombia in the last 16, both would be very tough games. Added to this are the question marks over Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane’s records at the highest level of international football, and both seem priced largely on reputation in the market. Robert Lewandowski is a world-class striker with a superb record for Poland, but his side are in poor form coming into the tournament, and wouldn’t relish a battle against England or Belgium in the first knockout round. As a result, none of the three are screaming to be backed at their current prices.
Unless there is a repeat of Oleg Salenko’s five-star performance in 1994 the winner is extremely likely to come from the leading pool of contenders. Given the price disparity between the Tournament Winner and this market – with players available at double or triple the price of their team – the Golden Boot could represent a golden ticket for bettors.