FRANCE 98 BETTING
It is at moments like this that British punters should reflect on just how lucky they are. In the run-up to the World Cup, the PR reps of most major bookmakers have received requests for interviews from all manner of countries where betting on football is not simply discouraged, but actually illegal. The fact that anyone in Britain can place a bet on their local high street is for many a source of fascination and envy.

And even where betting is acceptable, no-one can take a plunge into such a stimulating market as that facing the British backer. There is spread betting, for instance, which mirrors the methods - and risks - of the stock market. This is strictly for aficionados with nerves as solid as a German back four, but it is still interesting to know that Sporting Index, a leading spread-bet firm, reckon on there being between 40 and 43 red cards at the tournament, and no more than three Scottish goals. There are also bets on who will be the dirtiest side, the number of headed goals, and so on.

The traditional bookies also offer a large number of "speciality" bets, though these too are best treated with caution. Michael Owen at 25-1 to win the Golden Boot, for instance, might appeal, until you remember that there are 32 competing nations and Owen is not guaranteed a place in England's starting line-up.

The best betting mediums will be the most straightforward. The odds on individual matches will deserve careful study after a week or so, when there is some form to work with, while the betting on the overall winner is also impossible to resist.

Brazil are firm favourites to retain the trophy at a best price of 3- 1. Given the unpredictability of the final knock-out stages, this is hardly an attractive bet, and there are also doubts about the hosts (no obvious goalscorer) and Germany (ageing). England, following the omission of one of their two truly world class players, are even worse value.

Do not be tempted to dabble at the other end of the market. Outsiders do not win major tournaments, so the best bet must lie somewhere in between. Argentina have been quietly backed down to 10-1, and can field an outstanding striker in Gabriel Batistuta and a brilliant playmaker in Ariel Ortega. Back them to win the tournament, with a small saving bet at 9-1 on Holland - deeply talented but historically prone to lapses in team spirit.

Odds correct at time of going to press

BEST PRICES WITH LEADING BOOKIES

3-1 Brazil (Coral, Tote) 7-1 France (Hills)

15-2 Germany (Tote), Italy (T)

8-1 England (Ladbrokes)

9-1 Holland (H,L,T)

10-1 Argentina (C)

14-1 Spain (H,L,T)

28-1 Nigeria (L),

33-1 Norway (C,H)

Yugoslavia (H)

40-1 Croatia (L)

50-1 Colombia (C,H,L,T)

50-1 Romania (H)

66-1 Bulgaria (H,T)

Denmark (H)

80-1 bar

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