Next week’s World Cup will be the first to have legalized sports betting widely available in the United States, so many bettors will be coming to soccer for the first time, looking to place a wager on the world’s most popular sporting event.
Since soccer betting options and terminology are a little different than most American sports, let’s run through the basics and then look at a few specifics for the World Cup itself.
Three-way: This offers prices on (you guessed it) the three different outcomes: a win by either team or a draw. When teams are evenly matched, you might see plus-money on all three choices. For example, the United States-Wales game currently lists the U.S. at +160 to win, Wales at +195 to win, and the draw at +195. For those used to two-way lines, processing three options takes a moment, but you’ll soon catch on.
Goal line: This line is a spread, just like you’ll find in the NFL or NHL, which is a closer point of reference. Because goals are relatively scarce in soccer, you’ll rarely see -110 types of goal lines. Instead, the lines are usually tilted one way or the other. In the U.S.-Wales example, the U.S. is currently favored by half a goal, but the price is +145, while Wales +0.5 is -185, since you’d get both a Wales win and a draw with that bet. Some games will of course have larger spreads, like Argentina at -180 laying a goal and a half against Saudi Arabia.
Asian handicap: Some books offer lines in quarter-goal increments, which can be confusing for first-time soccer bettors who don’t usually see teams favored by 0.25 goals or points or anything else. A line that includes 0.25 or 0.75 means that you’re splitting your bet between the two nearest half-goal lines. Think of it as two half bets on two different lines. The easiest way to explain is with an example:
If you bet $10 at even money on Argentina -1.75 goals vs Saudi Arabia, then you’re essentially placing two $5 bets on Argentina, one at -2 and one at -1.5. If Argentina wins by more than two goals, you win the whole $10. If Argentina wins by exactly two goals, you win half your bet ($5 from the -1.5 part) and the other $5 is a push at -2, so you come out $5 ahead. If Argentina wins by exactly one goal or draws or loses, you lose your whole bet. Asian handicaps can be a good middle option with in-between odds when you aren’t convinced which regular line to take. Over/under. This is pretty straightforward, just with lower numbers than most sports. The usual starting point for an over/under is 2.5 goals, typically with a little juice on the over by default. For reference, Premier League games are averaging 2.8 goals per game over the last two seasons. You can usually find alternate lines for anywhere from 0.5 goals to at least 4.5 goals, all juiced accordingly, and default lines are often 3.5 for higher-scoring teams. You’ll also find over/unders available for each team individually, for each half, and for combinations of the two.
Both teams to score (yes or no): This is exactly what it sounds like: you’re betting that each team scores at least one goal, or that each team doesn’t get one. It’s akin to betting an over/under, but needing a more precise result. And don’t get confused by own goals. You’re betting on each team getting a goal in its scoring column, regardless of how the ball gets in the net.
Draw no bet: This option is based on the three-way result, in the sense that you’re taking one team to win the match, and a draw means the bet is refunded. So the U.S. is +160 to win against Wales, and the draw no bet line is -135. You’ll obviously win less money if the U.S. wins, in exchange for a push if the game is a tie. There are other variants of the no bet play, but draw no bet is the most common.
Double chance: This bet has a few different names (like Team and X), but the play is ultimately the same: you’re getting two sides of the three-way line, usually one team to win or draw, which is the same as playing a team +0.5 goals.
There are obviously dozens of other markets, most of which are similar to what you’ll find in other sports. Common team and game options include goals, shots, corners and cards. There are markets for which team scores first, when the first goal is scored, and much more. Similar choices exist for individual players, and there are countless combinations of all these things.
I may have buried the lede here. If there’s one thing to learn from this article, it’s how bets work in the knockout stage. As a rule in elimination games, all of the bets mentioned above are for 90 minutes plus stoppage time only. That means bets are graded at the end of regulation, regardless of what happens in extra time or penalties, which happen if a knockout game is tied after regulation.
Most books apply this rule to all bets on teams and players. So if you bet on Germany to beat Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final, you probably didn’t win that bet, since Germany needed extra time to win 1-0. And if you had a bet on Mario Gotze anytime goalscorer, you likely didn’t cash that ticket when he tallied the winner.
Virtually everyone who’s ever bet soccer (myself included) has made this mistake, leading to misplaced emotion during extra time and confusion when cashing a ticket or checking an account. As always, know your book’s rules.
Having said all that, you can bet on which team advances to the next round, regardless of needing extra time or penalties. These options are usually called something like “to advance” or “to qualify” or “to lift the trophy” in the case of a final. You’ll also find separate options for specific scenarios like winning in extra time, advancing on penalties, etc.
World Cup Group Futures
In addition to single-game bets, tournaments like the World Cup offer plenty of futures opportunities. The simplest group options are for a team to win the group or to advance to the knockout stage, by finishing in the top two of the four teams. Most of the groups have one or two heavy favorites, so you can find plus-money prices on underdogs at good value since soccer is a high-variance sport in which one goal or foul or bounce can change so much.
One tip if you’re placing group future bets is that there are often better options than just placing a straight bet on one team to advance or win the group. For example, let’s say you like Mexico to advance from Group C, where Argentina is a massive -1100 favorite to advance and -275 to win the group. There may be more appealing choices than betting Mexico to advance at -135. Consider a dual forecast bet for both Argentina and Mexico to advance, or an exact order bet of Argentina/Mexico, or to bet Mexico to finish second in the group. The first two options are basically parlays, so the prices may or may not be worth it, but they’re always worth checking.
One of the most popular futures in any competition is which player scores the most goals. It sounds like a simple play, but it’s important to know how your book is defining the bet, whether on an actual Golden Boot winner or simply the top goalscorer. The distinction is…
Golden Boot: awarded by the tournament itself, usually with tiebreakers. At the World Cup, FIFA has a first tiebreaker of assists, and a second tiebreaker of fewest minutes played. For example at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Ellen White each had six goals. Rapinoe and Morgan each had two assists to White’s none, and Rapinoe won the Golden Boot because she played fewer minutes than Morgan. Top goalscorer: simply counts the player(s) with the most goals, regardless of a competition’s award rules. In case of a tie, books typically pay out bets split by the number of winners. Meaning, if you bet a top goalscorer at 40-1, and he ties with one other player, you’ll get paid out at 20-1. If four players were tied, you’d get paid at 10-1, etc.
All that to say: know what you’re betting and how your book pays out possible ties. Also, don’t confuse the Golden Boot with the Golden Ball, an award that is given to the tournament’s top player, as voted on by a select committee prior to the final. The winner doesn’t need to be from the champion either, as six straight Golden Ball winners did not win the World Cup. These are just some of the numerous betting options available for soccer in general and the World Cup specifically. Enjoy the tournament!
Former ESPN senior researcher Paul Carr is Senior Director of Content for TruMedia and is covering his fourth men’s World Cup.