The joy of betting on the World Cup
One of the few things that now distinguishes the UK from the US culturally is our view of gambling as a form of mainstream entertainment and of bookmakers as a legitimate, respectable part of our business culture. William Hill, Ladbrokes and the rest are our Starbucks and McDonald's -- or they would be, if we didn't have thousands of Starbucks and McDonald's. Even a tiny row of retail outlets will contain a betting shop, and we bet on everything -- politics, weather, the Booker Prize, talent shows, the names of royal babies -- these days usually online, an option still illegal in America. At halftime in televised Premier League games, a famous actor comes on screen to tell us the odds for second-half scores and scorers. Our second, third and fourth divisions are sponsored by Sky Bet. Nottingham Trent University has a professor of gambling studies.
So, of course, Britain bets on the World Cup. Betting is patriotic, because by gambling we are supporting one of our few real growth industries. We bet patriotically, too. Costa Rica (top of Group D, two wins out of two) were 4/1 to beat winless, pointless odds-on favourites England the other night. And my own family has done its duty, many times over. I introduced my young sons to betting during the last World Cup, in South Africa, because they were too young to sit through whole games without annoying everyone else in the room; a fifty-pence online punt on corners had the magical effect of inducing total focus. On the one hand it was stupid, dangerous and morally reprehensible, and on the other I got to watch the whole of Slovakia versus Paraguay. You do the maths. Please. I'm too scared.
And this year, so far, we're winning for one simple reason: there have been an extraordinary number of goals, a record number in the group stage, and if you place a bet on more than two in every game, then at the time of writing, you'd be well ahead. Football has changed. The English tend to forget that the 1990 tournament -- remembered fondly here because of the national team's appearance in the semifinals, and mythologized accordingly -- was so spirit-crushingly negative that it forced a change in the laws of the game. The new rule forbade goalkeepers from picking up a back-pass, and has unquestionably been successful; that's just one of the reasons it has become more or less impossible to hate a team simply because of how it plays the game, in the way one could hate the old Italian catenaccio system.
"In football, defence was always superior to attack," Michel Platini once said, but now, it appears, the reverse is true, and not simply because there is a new and adventurous spirit abroad. Defending is an art that seems less interesting to multimillionaire players than it used to, and the unchanging, highly drilled back four is a rarity even in the club game. Players switch teams too often; squads are too big and need rotating; defenders spend way more time being suspended than they ever did. It's hard to see a single country in the tournament that could rely on shutting a team out and hoping to win by pinching a goal from a set piece at the other end. The Russians were boring -- they were coached by Fabio Capello, after all --but they were also inadequate, at both ends of the pitch.
Yet, paradoxically, true strikers are in short supply. Two hundred million people live in Brazil, and just about every single one of them breathes football. So why is Fred playing at centre-forward? Spain were the reigning world and European champions coming into the tournament, yet the only strikers they could call on were ageing David Villa of Melbourne City, hapless Fernando Torres, whose lack of confidence over the past couple of years has been ghastly to watch, and Diego Costa, who bafflingly made two appearances for Brazil in 2013, and who endured a wretched tournament anyway.
Miroslav Klose is, of course, a true striker, but if you'd told him at the 2002 tournament that he'd be getting a game for Germany in 2014, he'd have laughed at you. Klose celebrated his 36th birthday just before this World Cup started, and he could reasonably have expected a global footballing superpower to have found someone else by now. Most Arsenal fans are a little disconcerted to see Lukas Podolski sitting on the German bench, too. At the Emirates we're used to seeing him sitting on the bench -- it's not that. But as Arsenal aren't overburdened with top-quality forwards, we presumed his poor season meant he didn't have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near a squad that has a decent chance of winning the tournament. Klose is the only orthodox striker in Germany's 23-man squad, but their attacking midfielders more than compensate. (Nobody quite knows what Thomas Muller is, but he's the joint top scorer in Brazil.) The "hole" everyone now seems to want to play in will soon be as big as a lunar crater. What's wrong with them all? Here's a career path: hang around on the edge of the box, wait for a rebound off a defender, knock it in from 2 yards, become a national hero. It worked for Gary Lineker and Gerd Muller.
Jonathan Brack, a Swedish teacher, made the best and shrewdest bet of the tournament: he got 175/1 on Luis Suarez biting an opponent, and won 1,200 pounds (pending, presumably, Uruguay's desperate, embarrassing appeal). Suarez has provided one of the moments in the tournament to date that will be repeated on television for as long as there are televised World Cups. A couple of the others came in the extraordinary, sad, thrilling game between Netherlands and Spain, but Robin van Persie's header from Daley Blind's brilliant cross, and Arjen Robben's electrifying footrace against Gerard Pique produced only goals, however, and goals, even great ones, are predictable within the context of a football match. The Suarez assault, deplorably unsporting though it might have been, was one of those moments that make sport so addictive: front-page headline news that is at the same time comprehensible, relatively harmless even to the victim, and astounding. Life, regrettably, is not like that, and we should do everything we can to delay its return on July 14.