Euro 2024 underdogs and upsets: The case for Austria, Belgium and Denmark

With one glorious exception, underdogs were very quiet in group play at the Euros this year, where just five of 36 matches resulted in wins for the team rated lower in FIFA’s world rankings. And you’re going to have to keep squinting to spy potential upsets from here on out.

Sometimes, long shots rocket into prominence because an unheralded team is simply better than most people realize. It takes the world by surprise, as Morocco did at the Women’s World Cup last year or Venezuela is doing at Copa América right now.

In other cases, dark horses win races by pursuing high-risk/high-reward styles of play. David couldn’t bulk up to the size of Goliath overnight, but he figured out how to take smart chances against his objectively stronger opponent and beat him. In soccer, because scoring is so low, that often means doing whatever you can to avoid giving up even one goal, surrendering possession when necessary to strive for shutouts — especially in win-or-go-home situations like tournaments. Iceland epitomized this strategy at the 2016 Euros, when they played three of the world’s 20 best teams in groups and advanced even though they held the ball under 30 percent of the time.

This year, no underdog fit either of those categories well until the very last day of groups. And then, on Wednesday, Georgia, whose men’s team is ranked No. 74 in the world, upended No. 6 Portgual, 2-0, in the biggest upset in the history of the European Championships. As they did in securing a 1-1 draw against Czechia, Georgia fell back, then fell back some more, sometimes deep into their own end of the field, and waited until they could obstruct and counterstrike. Georgia gave up a massive advantage in touches to Portugal (838 to 383!) but had more tackles, more clearances and managed to score twice.

As professional upset chasers, we were screaming for the Jvarosnebi all afternoon.

But even we can’t see the fun lasting too much longer for this debutant. Georgia will now face Spain, which takes more than 15 shots per 90 minutes, puts more than a third of them on target, has outscored opponents 30-5 in Euro qualifiers and matches — and beat Georgia by a score of 7-1 last fall. Our statistical model, which incorporates team ratings, quality of recent play and defensive metrics such as interceptions, tackles and clean sheets, sees a chance of less than 5 percent for another upset.

So now it’s time to go hunting for underdogs to triumph relative to expectations and seek value on betting lines, however famous the next round of long shots might be or whatever styles they play. Here are our favorite picks, two for the Round of 16 and one to win the championship.

Odds are from BetMGM. For more Underdogs, listen to Peter and Jordan’s podcast.

Belgium over France

Let’s be honest here: If Belgium looks like it did during the group stage, this becomes a silly bet. Kevin De Bruyne and company hardly resembled the world’s third-ranked team, losing to Slovakia in their opener, beating Romania 2-0 and then settling for a scoreless draw with Ukraine and getting booed in the process. As The Athletic’s Daniel Taylor wrote:

“Belgium have at least advanced to the knockout phase, where they will play France in the round of 16 on Monday in Dusseldorf, but it would be generous in the extreme to try to make a case on their behalf that they look capable of doing something that has always been beyond them in the past.

“Any glory at this tournament would, after all, require Belgium to shed their reputation as a country that has continually produced some of the world’s finest footballers without it ever leading to anything of real substance for their national team.”

Here’s the thing about reputations: They exist until they don’t. As experts on underdogs of all shapes and sizes, we offer up Exhibit A in defense of a talented squad shedding past failures to prosper: The Purdue Boilermakers. For years, they were the butt of jokes in our Bracket Breakers coverage, upset by the likes of St. Peter’s and Fairleigh Dickinson. But this year, the Boilermakers reached the NCAA championship game. Same coach. Same key players as a year before. They were failures until they weren’t.

But yeah, that’s college basketball. How about soccer? Well, it wasn’t that long ago that Lionel Messi and Argentina had the reputation as being unable to win when it mattered. Then they captured the World Cup. The history of sports is littered with teams and players who were labeled as losers until they broke through. And Belgium could join that list. So they shouldn’t be damned by past failures.

Belgium’s current form makes them a rightful underdog. They’re just too big of an underdog. Belgium’s +170 odds equate to about a 37 percent chance of advancement. But based on a combination of FIFA rankings and Elo ratings, Belgium has more like a 47 percent chance of getting through this match, creating value in this line. Considering the randomness we see in one-and-done soccer, particularly when games can be decided by penalty kicks, there’s enough upside to back Belgium to shock the French.

Denmark over Germany

The only thing most fans have been hearing about Denmark is that they qualified for the knockouts on a series of tiebreakers that came down to a yellow card assessed on Slovenia assistant coach Milivoje Novaković during groups. That’s pretty funny, but it’s just one more example of the “Yeah, but …” attitude surrounding this squad.

Denmark qualified for the Euros by winning its group and posting a nine-goal differential in 10 games but lost to Kazakhstan and beat tiny San Marino by a score of just 2-1 along the way. Rasmus Højlund (who plays for Manchester United) had seven goals in those matches, but fans and analysts wonder if he’s really worthy of top-flight international renown. This is a cohesive team filled with veterans — goalie Kasper Schmeichel is in his 19th pro season — but fans and analysts further wonder about its lack of youth. Denmark’s scores in groups couldn’t have been more ambiguous: 1-1 vs. Slovenia, 1-1 vs. England, 0-0 vs. Serbia.

All of which is creating big-time value in betting markets. For one thing, Denmark qualified for the knockouts by the skin of their teeth only because they were unlucky. They had 3.2 expected goals in groups while allowing 2.3, a difference just a hair short of the margin posted by England. For another, Germany is only now putting itself back together after a series of terrible campaigns: third place in its group at the 2022 World Cup, third place (with four draws and a loss) in the 2022 Nations League, six losses (including at home to Turkey) in 11 friendly matches in 2023. Wins over France and the Netherlands in friendlies this spring seemed to have perked up the team and its fan base. But we still don’t really know if Die Mannschaft has patched up a defense that’s given up three or more goals in more than 20 percent of its games over the past two years. Germany didn’t have to qualify for these Euros. And while they crushed Scotland in groups, in contrast to Denmark, the Germans were lucky in their opening three matches, with a bigger margin in actual goals than expected.

Of course, Germany has home-field advantage in this match. But this game will be played in Westfalenstadion in Dortmund (called BVB Stadion Dortmund for UEFA competitions), which is about as far from Denmark as New York City is from Maine. If there’s one group of foreign Europeans that’s comfortable wearing their national shirts, drinking beer and screaming their heads off in northern Germany, it’s the Danes. Germany and Denmark are separated by just five slots in FIFA’s world rankings, by seven in the latest Elo ratings. These teams have played twice in the past five years, both times to 1-1 draws. There’s just very little evidence they’re in different classes.

Austria (+1600 at BetMGM) to win the championship

You might notice two things about Austria’s odds to take home the title. First, +1600 isn’t that long a shot, particularly when you’re talking about a team that isn’t one of Europe’s traditional powers. Secondly, despite being ranked only 25th in FIFA’s pre-tourney world rankings, those are the same odds as Italy (10th in FIFA) and significantly shorter than Belgium (third in FIFA, +2800). That speaks to three things: The relative weakness of FIFA’s ranking system, the road each team faces in the knockout stage, and the struggle to capture how well a national team is playing at any given moment, given the low sample size of meaningful international competitions.

Those latter two factors — a relatively easy path and strong current form — work in Austria’s favor. After opening group play with a 1-0 loss to France on an own goal (despite actually holding a 52/48 possession advantage), Austria responded with a 3-1 win against Poland and a 3-2 victory over the Netherlands. That allowed Austria to top a group that featured two traditional powers and position themselves for a run to the semis that starts with Tuesday’s matchup against Turkey and then a potential quarterfinal date against either Romania or the Netherlands.

We’ve seen underdogs author memorable performances in previous Euro championships, from Iceland beating England in 2016 to Wales’ semifinal run that same year to Greece’s remarkable victory in 2004. And looking even beyond those competitions, our research has found that a typical hallmark of successful soccer underdogs is the ability to play a disruptive defensive style. Well, guess who led the group stage with 90 combined tackles and interceptions? That’s right, Austria.

Add in an offense that has scored six combined goals in its past two games, and coach Ralf Rangnick has clearly found something with this group. Will that be enough to hoist the trophy come July 14? That remains a tall task, but at 16:1 odds, it’s an interesting investment.

(Photo of Rasmus Højlund: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images)

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