The World Cup is predicted to be the biggest-ever betting event, with more than £1bn gambled by British punters alone, and billions more worldwide.
And the worst-case scenario for the bookies will be if England win.
Colossal sums wagered by patriotic fans mean that the odds on an England win have narrowed to 6-1 — just behind favourites Spain on 4-1 and Brazil on 9-2. An England victory will result in a huge payout.
But don't bet on it.
“It's difficult to make a case for England being the third favourites except for the amount of money that is being wagered on England,” says Graham Sharpe of William Hill.
England fans are the bookies' best mates, says Professor David Forrest, who runs the Centre for the Study of Gambling at the University of Salford's business school. “The best day in the history of the betting industry was when England played Greece in October 2001. It attracted massive betting for an England win, as England needed a point to qualify for the World Cup, and Beckham scored in the last few moments. But it was a draw, not a win, so it was the bookies who won.”
The bookies' favourite
Professor Forrest says it is draws where bookies make their money, as sports fans almost never bet on a draw. “Indeed, a dearth of draws in the Premier League before Christmas sent most British bookies into loss. The bookmakers suffered badly from the fact that draws dried up,” says Forrest, although after Christmas the number of draws returned to their traditional pattern.
The best result for the bookies in South Africa will be if England limp through with a couple of draws and a win in the group stage, then lose in the semis, or even better, in the final.
At William Hill, Sharpe says: “The England team deserve to be knighted for their services to the betting industry. They've enabled us to put aside a few quid for when the dreaded day comes and they do win the World Cup.”
Sharpe adds that this year's tournament will be “the biggest betting event ever, and the first one to exceed £1bn.”
But he also thinks it's one of the most open, and that despite Spanish hopes, there is no obvious winner.
At the University of Salford, number-crunching by Dr Ian McHale, a senior lecturer in statistics, suggests that Spain should indeed be the favourites, with England only the sixth most-likely to win.
His model analyses 9,000 internationals over an eight-year period, and has simulated the tournament 100,000 times. It emerges that Spain has an 11.6% chance of winning, then Brazil at 10.3% and France at 9.1%. Both Holland and Argentina rank higher than England's 5% chance.
“I make England having a 5% probability, but the bookmakers' odds suggest it is 12.5%, which is way out of line,” says Dr. McHale.
Nigeria are the outside contenders whose chances are underrated by the bookies compared to his analysis, while Slovenia should edge the USA out in England's group.
One of the best punts, if you believe the stats, is France, where you can still find odds of 20-1 on Thierry Henry lifting the cup.
Scoring off the field also features highly among the novelty bets that pepper the betting websites. William Hill accepts bets on which player will split up with which WAG, while Paddy Power is offering odds of 100-1 that the first cliche used by television commentators in England's opening match against the USA will be “Big Mac and fries.”
“The interesting market is who is going to start in goal for England. We've only just finished the betting on who was going to be left out of the England squad, and not much money was put on Walcott,” says Sharpe.
So what are the boffins at the University of Salford putting their money on? “I've never bet on a match,” admits Dr McHale. “If France wins I'll be devastated.”
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