The 2018 World Cup isn’t underway yet but there are plenty of prop bets on the board worth a punt for footy fans. The Golden Ball is awarded to the player of the tournament at the end of each World Cup, and it’s the highest individual honor a player can achieve on the international stage.
The Golden Ball isn’t like the Finals MVP in the NBA or the Super Bowl MVP in the NFL, where the winner 99 percent of the time is a chief contributor on the championship side. The Golden Ball hasn’t gone to a player on a World Cup winner since 1994.
Here are other five tips to keep in mind when handicapping the field to win the 2018 Golden Ball.
Pick a forward or attacking midfielder
Soccer, like many other sports this decade, has seen rapid advancement of analytics. But don’t think media members are going to look at expected goals or chances created ahead of goals and assists when determining their vote for the Golden Ball.
Eight of the nine winners of the award have been attacking midfielders or forwards. Five played as central forwards and two were that year’s top tournament goal scorer.
David De Gea is the world’s top keeper and will play every match for a Spain – the third favorite to win the World Cup. He won’t win the individual hardware unless he keeps a clean sheet in every match on the way to the final. That’s why he’s a longshot at +6,600 at bet365.com.
Pick a player on a team that’s a lock to get out of the Group Stage
Mohamed Salah is the second favorite to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or – an award given to the player with the most outstanding season primarily based on contributions at the club level – but he’s a long shot to win the World Cup Golden Ball because he plays for Egypt. Oddsmakers list Salah and his Egyptian teammates as +162 underdogs to advance out of Group A.
Salah scored 44 goals in 53 games for Liverpool this season but is listed at +5,000 to win the Golden Ball. That’s a nice payout but it’s not worth a gamble. Instead, consider players who are locks to get out of the Group stage. Germany, France, Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Belgium are the biggest favorites to advance to the knockout rounds.
Think about a player’s position and role in his national team, not his club team
Argentina is blessed and cursed with four of the most gifted forwards in the game today. Few clubs would have a better option as their starting No. 9 than Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero. The problem is there isn’t a formation manager Jorge Sampaoli can pick that will allow him to field those three plus Lionel Messi in his first 11.
Pick a player in the right age group
One of the best parts of the World Cup is seeing new talents emerge and display star performances. Everyone remembers Ronaldo – the Brazilian one – as a 21-year-old blazing past any and all defenders at the 1998 World Cup in France. But Ronaldo is the exception and not the rule when it comes to Golden Ball winners of the past.
The average age of the nine past Golden Ball winners is 27.4 years and three of the last four winners were all north of 30. Instead of considering youngsters like Germay's Leroy Sane (22), Brazil's Gabriel Jesus (21) or even France's Kylian Mbappe (19), think more about players in their prime and with World Cup experience.
Toni Kroos +3,300
Germany are loaded with skilled attacking midfielders but Toni Kroos is the preferred playmaker for manager Joachim Low. Kroos led the 2014 World Cup in assists with four and added on two goals for good measure.
Kevin De Bruyne +1,600
Former USAMT keeper Tim Howard is still having nightmares about this Belgian attacking midfielder. De Bruyne is coming off his best professional season and is a finalist for the Premier League’s player of the year. He’s the driving force of a talented Belgian squad and he should be able to pad his stats in the Group Stage against Tunisia and Panama.