A successful gambler once told me: ‘Never bet on football, never bet on multipliers, and never ever bet on football multipliers.’ Multipliers, in case you don’t know, are those enticing combination wagers on bookmakers’ shopfronts: ‘Liverpool win 2-0 + Sturridge to score = 33/1.’ Mugs like me fall for them every time. My subconscious tends to add together the two probabilities — that of Sturridge scoring and that of Liverpool winning 2-0 — when really I should be multiplying them. Duh.
The bookies don’t always triumph when it comes to football, however. This year’s Champions League has so far seen few upsets: as a result, the major sports bookmakers have taken ‘one hell of a beating in the last two months’, according to one of my sources in the vice sector. Moreover, if you bet on seasons, rather than individual matches, you can find value. On 1 October Burnley were top of the Championship, yet still 31-1 to win the league. At that price, I couldn’t resist. Four wins later they’re still top. The odds are now 6-1.
The trick with these ‘outright winner’ markets is to bet before or early in the season, when prices fluctuate dramatically according to form. That’s not a terribly useful tip in November, but there are always more competitions. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil, for instance. France have been in two of the past four finals, but are a staggering 47-1 on Betfair to win next year in Rio. The reason is that les Bleus didn’t qualify automatically from their group — they were a close second to Spain, the world champions — and now face a play-off against Ukraine. They should get through, and then only an idiot would say they have less chance than England, who are now about 20-1.
I should point out that World Cups are not my forte. In 2010, I read in some dummy’s guide to gambling that it’s possible to make money betting against goals being scored, because sports fans generally assume that matches will be more exciting than they are. The theory appealed to the miserabilist in me and I decided to put it to the test for the World Cup in South Africa. Before almost every match, I would go online and back ‘less than 2.5 goals’ (in the 2006 World Cup, the average number of goals per game was 2.3). Then I’d turn on the television and pray for a bore draw.
It’s quite thrilling, in a perverse way, to watch a match when you’re desperately hoping that neither team will do anything interesting. Remember the vuvuzelas, those appallingly noisy plastic horns that African fans insisted on blowing throughout the tournament? The players complained about them, saying the racket put them off, and sensitive television viewers pressed the mute button. But to me, positioned as I was against creativity, that nihilistic monotone sounded like sweet music.
Sometimes after 20 goalless minutes I would lose my nerve and lay the bet off, but on the whole I stuck to the plan and more often than not it worked. After the semi-finals I was up, substantially. A rational being would have quit there, but I elected to lump all my winnings — and a bit more — on the hope of a dull final between Spain and Holland. It turned out to be a 3-2 thriller.
If there’s one thing more foolish than gambling on football, it’s a gambling footballer. Look at poor Matthew Etherington, the Stoke City winger, who reportedly lost £1.5 million betting on dogs, horses and poker, and resorted to payday loans to cover his losses. Stoke City chose to give him a pay rise to help him overcome his problem. Which sounds like madness, until you realise that the club is run by the Coates family, who also own Bet365, Britain’s most successful online bookie. Presumably they reckoned giving more money to Matty was a safe investment.
Freddy Gray is The Spectator’s managing editor.