How Often Does the Favourite Win the World Cup?

Brazil World Cup
fifg / Bigstockphoto.com

When the World Cup comes around every four years, so many of us enjoy having a bet on the team we think will be crowned champions. Each time the bookies will reveal who they think has the best shot of success and often you may well find yourself agreeing. The favourites are always the shortest-priced option for good and valid reasons, but has betting on them been a good strategy over the years and is it one worth following blindly?

This is exactly what we wanted to find out so we dug into the archives and found the favourite for each World Cup since the tournament began in 1930. After looking at all nations that have had the pressure of being top dogs at least once, we will then undergo some number crunching. The purpose of this is to see if consistently betting on the favourite has been a profitable tactic. If not, you may want to think about being a little braver next time you decide to bet on the World Cup winner. Who knows, maybe England might even be worth a try one day?!

Brazil

Brazil flagWe will start by looking at Brazil who, rather incredibly, have been favourites for around half of all World Cups. Their huge population and passion for football has given them a consistent ability to churn out top-class talent. This means that even when not favourite, you will never find the Brazilians too far down the bookies’ lists. They are the only nation to qualify for every finals and perhaps unsurprisingly, they are the most successful nation in the competition’s history too, although being the favourite has not been a guarantee of victory.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 5
  • Number of Times Favourite – 10
  • Year(s) Favourite – 2018, 2014, 2006, 1998, 1994, 1986, 1970, 1966, 1962, 1958
  • Number of Times Won as Favourite – 4
  • Winning Percentage as Favourite – 40%
  • Number of Times Runner-Up as Favourite – 1 (1998)
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 0

The four World Cups between 1958 and 1970 saw Brazil begin as the team to beat. On three of these occasions, they ended up justifying their position as favourite as they enjoyed some highly concentrated success, spearheaded by the brilliant Pele. More recently though and the Canarinho have not been able to handle the pressure quite as well. On the last four occasions starting as favourite, it has all gone wrong for the Brazilians, often in quite dramatic fashion too.

In 1998 they did reach the final but were silenced 3-0 by France in what was a rather one-sided contest. This does not compare to the scenes of the 2014 World Cup though which left global audiences speechless. Playing on home soil, the Brazilians lost 7-1 to Germany in the semi-finals in arguably the most shocking World Cup match of all time. It was hard to believe when watching such an abject display that this team were fancied to win the whole thing.

Italy

Italy flagIn the very early World Cup years, Italy were quite the formidable side. They did not take part in the inaugural 1930 edition but were the most feared side coming into 1934 and 1938. The Azzurri have only found themselves going into a tournament as the leading team once since then, but they are still the joint-second most successful nation in World Cup history.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 4
  • Number of Times Favourite – 3
  • Year(s) Favourite – 1934, 1938, 1990
  • Number of Times Won as Favourite – 2
  • Winning Percentage as Favourite – 66%
  • Number of Times Runner-Up as Favourite – 0
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 0

With Uruguay winning the first ever World Cup as the host nation in 1930, it seemed that playing at home was a considerable advantage. So, with Italy preparing to welcome the world in 1934, it was not a big surprise that they were the market leaders. The Azzurri duly delivered too, although they did need extra time to beat Czechoslovakia in the final. Four years later they became the first defending champions to retain their crown. It is a feat that has only been managed once since, with back-to-back World Cup wins a seemingly very tough task.

Home advantage did not prove enough in 1990 though, the only other tournament in which the Italians have topped the betting. Azeglio Vicini’s men reached the semi-finals without conceding a goal but then tasted defeat to Argentina on penalties following a 1-1 draw. After also facing elimination via shootout four years later, Italian fans may have feared the worst during the 2006 final. This time though they held their nerve to win the World Cup on penalties as the 10/1 fourth favourites.

Germany

Germany flagRather surprisinglly, a unified Germany have never been the outright favourites for a World Cup, unlike West Germany, but they were joint favourites with Brazil in 1994. Just to note that as the current German national team is seen as a continuation of West Germany (rather than East Germany), there is no need to distinguish between the two when looking at past performances.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 4
  • Number of Times Favourite – 3
  • Year(s) Favourite – 1994, 1978, 1974
  • Number of Times Won as Favourite – 1
  • Winning Percentage as Favourite – 33%
  • Number of Times Runner-Up as Favourite – 0
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 0

It is a touch surprising that Germany have only been the top-rated side, as determined by the bookies, for three World Cups. More commonly they have ended up finding themselves as second-favourites, something seen in 2018, 1998, 1994 and 1982. Only one of their World Cup wins have come while in the top-two in the betting however, suggesting that Die Mannschaft prefer to be a little more under the radar coming into a tournament – or that the bookies have struggled to price them correctly.

The stress should be on ‘little’ here though because it is not the case that Germany has ever won the World Cup as a huge outsider. In 1990 for instance, they were the 6/1 fourth favourites while in 2014 they were widely available at the same price. The triumph in 1954 is really the only win you could consider a shock, with their unfancied status largely down to the strength of the Hungary team. The two nations had met in the group stages with Hungary prevailing 8-3, so it is understandable why many though the final could only go one way. Indeed, after just eight minutes Hungary’s famed Mighty Magyars were 2-0 up and the Germans must have feared another pummelling. Somehow, though, they came back to win 3-2.

France

France flagAfter home nations began well in the early years of the World Cup it is a real surprise to note that France are the most recent side to have won the World Cup as the host nation, doing so in 1998. They were not favourites for this iteration of the tournament though, nor where they when successful again two decades later.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 2
  • Number of Times Favourite – 1
  • Year(s) Favourite – 2002
  • Number of Times Won as Favourite – 0
  • Winning Percentage as Favourite – 0%
  • Number of Times Runner-Up as Favourite – 0
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 0

The only time France began a World Cup as favourites ended up being their worst attempt in over 35 years. In the 1966 World Cup, Les Blues faced very early elimination after drawing one and losing two of their group stage matches. They had the exact same record in 2002, despite being the defending champions and pre-tournament favourites, coming into the World Cup as winners of the 2000 Euros as well. Of their two defeats, the most shocking came at the hands of debutants Senegal on what was the opening game of the tournament. Manager Roger Lemerre was quickly booted out following this horror show and replaced with Jacques Santini.

Uruguay

Uruguay flagAlthough they have not come close in a modern World Cup, Uruguay are two-time champions and have a great footballing heritage for a country with only a small population.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 2
  • Number of Times Favourite – 1
  • Year(s) Favourite – 1930
  • Number of Times Won as Favourite – 1
  • Winning Percentage as Favourite – 100%
  • Number of Times Runner-Up as Favourite – 0
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 0

This small South American nation have only once been the World Cup favourites and that was when hosting the first ever tournament. It was arguably the ‘easiest’ World Cup win too given that it featured the fewest number of teams (13), joint lowest with 1950, which coincidentally Uruguay also won.

It is also worth mentioning that their unexpected second triumph came in South America, just across the border in Brazil. The two World Cup in between, hosted in Europe, the Uruguayans chose not to enter. Back in those days travel was far more difficult, often requiring a long sea voyage, so it is perhaps unsurprising that host countries had a better record than they have managed in recent times.

England

England flagEngland have once won the World Cup (in 1966, you might have heard?) and once been the favourites, but not in the same year. Both instances were long before many England supporters were born as the national side has rather struggled on the World stage since, despite often having lots of market confidence, a result of plenty of heart-over-head betting for sure.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 1
  • Number of Times Favourite – 1
  • Year(s) Favourite – 1950
  • Number of Times Won as Favourite – 0
  • Winning Percentage as Favourite – 0%
  • Number of Times Runner-Up as Favourite – 0
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 1 (1966)

Obtaining accurate historical odds for many of the earlier World Cups is far from easy and in truth, we cannot be 100% sure about the prices for many of the tournaments before the 1980s and certainly before the 1970s. With that in mind, there are some that claim Brazil were the favourites for the 1950 World Cup but the most reliable sources indicate that, in fact, England were the 3/1 favourites. Their feared reputation did nothing to help them when it actually mattered though with the Three Lions losing two of their three group stage games.

A 1-0 defeat to Spain is far from an embarrassment but the defeat to 500-1 outsiders USA was incredibly hard to swallow and is a result that rivals Germany’s battering of Brazil for the title of most shocking in the World Cup. While England could not deliver on the pre-tournament hype in 1950, they did at least deliver as 9/2 second favourites when playing as hosts in 1966.

Spain

Spain flagSpain are the only nation on our list that have only won the World Cup when they have been the favourite. Admittedly, this has only been the one time but it could be a good omen for La Roja in future.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 1
  • Number of Times Favourite – 1
  • Year(s) Favourite – 2010
  • Number of Times Won as Favourite – 1
  • Winning Percentage as Favourite – 100%
  • Number of Times Runner-Up as Favourite – 0
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 0

There was not too much in the betting for the 2010 World Cup with Brazil and England only a short way behind Spain. Despite their challenges though, it was the Spaniards that commanded the most market confidence. For anyone that did put money on them, it must have been a nail-biting tournament.

Not only did Vicente del Bosque’s men lose their opening group stage game to Switzerland but they won every single knockout game by just a one-goal margin. This included the scrappy finale with Netherlands, which was settled by an Andres Iniesta’s strike in the 116th minute.

Argentina

Argentina flagIt may shock many to learn that football super-power Argentina have never been the World Cup favourites. However, we wanted to give them a very quick mention because they have won it twice. In 1986 they started out as the 4/1 second favourites while in 1978 they were the 5/1 third favourites behind West Germany and Brazil.

  • Total World Cup Wins – 2
  • Number of Times Favourite – 0
  • Number of Times Won as Second-Favourite – 1 (1986)

Is Betting on Favourites Profitable?

Football betting field

While we were able to dig up odds for the vast majority of former favourites, reliable information was not available for several of the early World Cups. So, for the purposes of doing our calculations, where odds were not available, we assigned countries an average value. This average value was worked out by using the 13 odds we did have and this told us that a typical favourite can be backed at odds of 10/3.

In truth, it is perhaps not the most accurate figure due to the expansion in the number of teams at the finals over the years but it is the best we have. Also, whilst more teams play at the World Cup nowadays, the number of serious contenders has not really changed all that much. Across 21 World Cups, the favourite has ended up winning on 9 occasions as seen below. That is a strike-rate of almost 43%, which given the average odds is actually rather good.

Winning Favourite Year Odds
Spain 2010 4/1
Brazil* (Joint-favourites) 1994 7/2
West Germany 1974 n/a
Brazil 1970 n/a
Brazil 1962 n/a
Brazil 1958 n/a
Italy 1938 n/a
Italy 1934 n/a
Uruguay 1930 n/a

A £1 stake placed on the favourite of every World Cup, therefore, would have given you a tidy profit of nearly £18, assuming we backed both Brazil and West Germany in 1994. Do not think that this favourite-backing approach is a guaranteed money-maker though because the data is very much skewed by older World Cups. In more recent editions of the tournament, the bookmakers have not been so good at predicting what happens.

Although there have been no incredible upsets, like we have seen in the European Championships (for example Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004), it is very common to see the third, or fourth favourites prevail on the global stage. If you only take a look at World Cups since 1978, backing the favourite £1 each time would mean you are £1.50 down overall.

Do not think that opting for the second-favourite would have served you any better either. The last country to win the tournament as the market runner-up was Argentina back in 1986. Additionally, between then and now, only one second-favourite has managed to make it to the final (Argentina in 2014).

Conclusion

Over the decades it has been quite a common sight to see the favourite win the World Cup. Up to, but not including Qatar 2022, the favourites had a strike rate of 43% yet they are often priced either 3/1 or 4/1, which gives an implied probability of 25% or 20% respectively, thus indicating odds that are good value for the punter.

However, for the era where we have more reliable information on odds and that should be more telling with regards betting on future tournaments, the market leaders have not fared so well. In more modern times, perhaps in part due to the expansion of the World Cup itself, the favourites have proved a bad bet. It has been increasingly common for favourites to fall short of expectation so you probably do not want to be backing them every single time.