Russia can balance the bookies

The odds are firmly against even the cleverest punter finding a way around the profit margins, says Greg Wood
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The Independent Online
Euro 96 is often described as the biggest sporting happening in Britain for 30 years, but in one respect at least it should comfortably surpass any other event in history, domestic or worldwide. "We expect," Graham Sharpe of William Hills says, "that this will be the biggest betting event ever."

The logic is obvious. "Every game will be shown live at an accessible time," Sharpe says, "England and Scotland are playing, and even if they don't progress, a lot of the other players are familiar to home fans. There are also expatriate communities who give many of the teams a ready- made fan base."

To fulfil his prediction, betting turnover on the championships will need to exceed the pounds 17m handled by Hills alone - which equates to an industry- wide figure of around pounds 75m - on the last World Cup. USA 94 itself marked the first time that turnover on a single competition - albeit a tournament lasting almost a month - had surpassed that staked annually on the Grand National. For bookmakers struggling to compete with the Lottery, Euro 96 could not have arrived at a better time or, for that matter, in a better place.

The sports authorities in many countries regard odds-layers as little more than shady parasites, but in Britain they are almost part of the family. Thus, as well as the official snack foods and soft drinks, the championship also has an official bookie (Ladbrokes), and amid their soberly-attired PR team you will not find a single Woodbine or five-o'clock shadow.

Yet the sharp suits and slick corporate image can only reinforce the belief of many punters that modern bookies are nothing more than profit- obsessed accountants. The margins are what matter, it seems, and few major layers are prepared to take a view and then, if necessary, the consequences.

Consider the latest outright championship betting from the Big Three firms, along with the Tote and Stan James, a leading independent.

The most significant difference of opinion about the first 12 teams in the list is just four points (Bulgaria are 16-1 with Ladbrokes, 20-1 at the Tote), and in all but one of the remaining 11 cases it is two points or less. Even at the best prices, the layers' profit margin is more than 20 per cent and any real value has long since disappeared.

This is, admittedly, a "mature" market which clever backers have had several months to study before wringing out the last drops of generosity. One country which many still seem to underestimate, however, is Russia. Though they must beat either Germany or Italy to emerge from Group C, the Russians have developed a powerful blend of solid defence and quicksilver attacks which will prove a match for anyone. The 18-1 on offer with Coral is definitely worth taking, though some of the betting bank should be saved for subsequent investments when the actual competition form of all the sides is finally apparent.

With their small fields, the markets on individual groups provide the bookies with much less scope for profiteering and punters stand a much better chance. The Russians again deserve support at 4-1 (generally available) to win Group C, while Bulgaria, at 9-2, are over-priced for Group B. It is hard to see beyond the favourites in the two remaining groups, however, in the shape of the Netherlands (11-10 with the Tote) and Portugal (13- 8, also the Tote).

The odds on the tournament's leading scorer fall perilously close to the category of novelty bets and these, like anything else preceded by the word "novelty", are best avoided.

The 20-1 against Alessandro Del Piero, for instance, is superficially appealing, but at least 30 players stand a fair chance, and injury or suspension could intervene at any moment.

Top-scorer betting, and odds on which teams will contest the final, are heavily promoted by the bookies, which should tell you all you need to know.

PREDICTIONS: Group A: Netherlands. Runners-up: England. Group B: Bulgaria. Runners-up: Spain. Group C: Russia. Runners-up: Germany. Group D: Portugal. Runners-up: Denmark.

CHAMPIONS: Russia. RUNNERS-UP: Netherlands.

The best-price index

OVERALL

9-2 Germany (L, SJ) 5-1 Italy (C, H, L, SJ)

6-1 Netherlands (T)

7-1 England (T, SJ)

8-1 Spain (T)

9-1 France (C, H, SJ)

12-1 Portugal (H, T, SJ)

14-1 Croatia (H, SJ)

18-1 Russia (C)

20-1 Romania (L)

20-1 Bulgaria (T)

28-1 Denmark (SJ)

50-1 Switzerland (C, L, T)

66-1 Czech Republic (H, L, SJ)

80-1 Scotland (widely available)

100-1 Turkey (widely available).

GROUP STAGE

Group A

Evens Netherlands (T, SJ)

13-8 England (H)

12-1 Switzerland (L)

12-1 Scotland (C).

Group B

7-4 Spain (C, L)

7-4 France (H, L, T, SJ)

9-2 Romania (C, H, SJ)

9-2 Bulgaria (C, H, T, SJ)

Group C

5-4 Germany (C, H, L, T, SJ

6-4 Italy (H, T, SJ)

4-1 Russia (C, L, T, SJ)

16-1 Czech Republic (C, H, L)

Group D

13-8 Portugal (T)

15-8 Croatia (C, H)

3-1 Denmark (L, SJ)

12-1 Turkey (SJ).

C Coral, H William Hill, L Ladbrokes, T Tote, SJ Stan James. Stan James take Switch/Delta bets on 0500 341 134.

TOP SCORER

(Ladbrokes)

9-2 Klinsmann

5-1 Kluivert

8-1 Ravanelli

10-1 Bergkamp

10-1 Bierhoff

12-1 Shearer

12-1 Stoichkov

12-1 Suker

12-1 Zola

14-1 Chiesa

14-1 Djorkaeff

20-1 Del Piero

20-1 Zidane

25-1 Boksic

25-1 Loko

25-1 Pizzi

33-1 Casiraghi

33-1 Kiko

33-1 Penev

40-1 Domingos

40-1 Mulder

50-1 bar

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