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The Speculator

How to win the World Cup (in the betting shop)

Learn to lay off at the right time, and you can be quids in whichever way the game goes

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

Summer is a difficult time for serious investments — it’s hard to be rational when hot — so why not try betting on the football world cup instead? Thanks to technology, sports gambling can feel a lot like investing these days. Internet betting exchanges are not bookmakers, but trading platforms. Any adult can buy or sell a bet — or position, if you prefer — and ‘trade out’ at a profit or loss before the match, race, or tournament even begins. Which means you are gambling less against sporting chance, more against the human whims of the market.

Let me give you an example. If you had taken the advice of, ahem, this column in November and backed France at 47/1 to win the World Cup in Brazil on 13 July, you could now lay off (bet against the French) at 26/1. If you laid on and off for the same amount, say £100, and France failed to win you would have covered your losses. In the unlikely event that Les Bleus do lift the World Cup trophy on 13 July, you stand to win £2,100 (having lost £2,600 at 26/1 but won £4, 700 at 47/1).

It’s still gambling and still dangerous. Had the French lost their playoff qualifier against Ukraine after I wrote that column, and they very nearly did, they would not be going to Brazil. But the point then was that the odds on the French seemed long, and the point now is that the average punter can find good wagers online and adjust his position to reduce or even cut out his risk if and when the market moves in his favour. He can be on both sides of the bet, as they say on Wall Street.


The easy part is recognising that in football, as in everything else, the wisdom of the day is almost always wrong — so if you hear the same view spouted by pundits on TV and repeated by bores elsewhere, go online and position yourself against it. The hard part is having the self-discipline to cash out while you are ahead.

Consider Belgium. The Belgian team was until recently something of a footballing non-entity. Now all sorts of experts are talking about their ingenious youth system and tipping them as the ones to watch in Brazil. As a consequence, according to Ladbrokes, they are the fifth most likely team to win the whole tournament, at odds of 16/1.

It’s true that Belgium has talented players and, given their relatively easy opening matches, they could win the tournament. But do they really have more of a chance than four-time champions Italy (22/1), or the perennially brilliant Dutch (28/1)? Holland reached the final last time, breezed the qualifiers this time, and are coached by the outrageously successful Louis van Gaal, aka Manchester United’s new boss. They do face Spain, who beat them in the final in 2010, in their first match but even if they lose against them — and I don’t think they will — you’d fancy them to progress. A sensible tip might be to bet against the overrated Belgians and back the Dutch, but lay them off after they go through the group stages. Or just hang on, if you want to have fun.

Another good policy, traditionally, is to bet against the English. Our country usually works itself into a state of hysterical optimism ahead of each international football tournament, then sinks into self-loathing when our boys fail. In the Panglossian phase, the odds on an England World Cup win tend to drift in too short. This year, however, an unusual sense of realism seems to have gripped us — and almost nobody seems to think England are good value at 33/1.

It would be typically English if, having for once written ourselves off, we went on to win the World Cup. We would then be so unbearably obnoxious about it that the Scots, in a fit of pique, would vote for independence. Put a small patriotic wager on England, then — and, if it comes in, a bigger cynical one on Scotland electing to leave the Union in September.


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