When it comes to the African Cup of Nations, punters are overly-influenced by the presence of Premier League stars, writes Jack Houghton.
"How much do odds of 2.76 – which suggest they have a greater than one-in-three chance of lifting the trophy – reflect Ivory Coast’s recent superiority over competitors, and how much do they reflect that, of the 15 players from the Premier League who will journey to South Africa for the finals, six will be in their squad?"
Betfair markets are, on the whole, efficient. In other words, over time, [1.01]-shots win 99 per cent of the time, [2.00]-shots half the time, and [100.0]-shots one per cent of the time. Which raises the obvious question: if the markets are such an accurate predictor of chance, what's the point of betting? Surely, given this market prescience, in the long-run, all you are likely to do is break even?
Well, no, because although the market might get things right when you look at the average of thousands of results, there are a multitude of instances where individual markets are very wrong. The job of a would-be successful punter, then, is to identify those markets. Do that often enough and you make a profit. Simple.
Simple, except that it's not always obvious which markets have got things wrong. So how to identify them? One way is to look for those instances where the market is being influenced by emotional, rather than rational, factors.
Before the days of transnational betting, an archetype of the emotion-influenced market was frequently seen in the odds offered on England to win any major football tournament. The big, fixed-odds bookmakers could offer paltry odds - which significantly overstated the chance of England - knowing that parochial punters would accept any odds in carrying out their patriotic duty.
Those kinds of nationalistic pricing ricks are largely gone, but not entirely. Boxers from the US and UK are typically over-bet when facing foreign opponents, and an English-dominated broadsheet rugby press ensure that the other five nations usually offer some value. And, it seems, the same might be said of the African Cup of Nations.
Look at the Ivory Coast, overwhelming favourites at [2.76] to add to their 1992 win in the competition. How much do those odds - which suggest they have a greater than one-in-three chance of lifting the trophy - reflect Ivory Coast's recent superiority over competitors, and how much do they reflect that, of the 15 players from the Premier League who will journey to South Africa for the finals, six will be in their squad, along with Didier Drogba, a Chelsea stalwart for so long?
It would be no surprise if punters were overly influenced by the lure of a team with a spread of Premier League stars. After all, the League's marketing machine works tirelessly to promulgate the view that top-flight English football is the best in the world, and players are keen to fulfil their public relations' duty by repeating the point whenever able. The more accurate assertion - that the Premier League, in its entirety, is a strong league, but no stronger than a host of other European and South American leagues - is a far less saleable message.
And anyway, even if the Premier League was pre-eminent, would that justify offering short odds about a team possessed of more of its players?
This is all supposition, of course. Ivory Coast's short odds might be better explained by looking at other factors. What seems clear, though, is that pure footballing form only offers part of the explanation. Examining ratings which assess the relative ability of international teams (I keep my own, but very good versions can be accessed online for free), Ivory Coast is indeed the best team in the competition, but only by about the same margin that Spain is ahead of the likes of Germany, Brazil, England, Holland and Argentina. If Spain were to play against those teams in an international competition tomorrow, would they be [2.76]? Considering they were around [5.20] going into the last World Cup, and are not even favourites for the next, it's doubtful.
It's reasonable to assume, then, that whether or not the Premier League hypothesis is accurate, there are at least some emotional factors at play in the African Cup of Nations Winner market. And where's there's emotion, there's usually profit.
And in this case, the easiest route to profit is probably to lay Ivory Coast at [2.76]. But the likes of Ghana ([7.80]), Morocco ([16.0]) and Tunisia ([24.0]) are all over-priced if you fancy a punt at bigger odds.