When David Beckham's left leg crumpled beneath him on an Italian soccer field last Sunday, a collective groan went up in England.
It didn't come from England's fans, many of whom have long considered Beckham an increasingly unnecessary ornament on their country's national team, but from bookmakers.
Gambling is as much a part of international soccer as dribbling.
It was no surprise, therefore, that previously odds were given on whether Beckham, 34, would be chosen for England's 2010 World Cup squad. If you said, "yes," you had to bet $6 to win $1. If you said, "no," the odds were 7 to 2. So when the Galaxy midfielder tore his Achilles' tendon while playing on loan for AC Milan, thus ending his Cup hopes, British bookmaker William Hill last week paid out.
The World Cup always produces a spate of strange gambles, and the June 11-July 11 tournament in South Africa is no exception.
Bets can be placed not only on which team will win the 32-nation event, but also on what color shoes a player will wear, who will get the first red card and which player's wife or girlfriend will be the first to be arrested.
That's in Britain. Over here, things are a trifle more staid, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe said something north of $1.5 billion will be wagered in the United Kingdom during the World Cup. "It's the single-biggest betting event for British bookmakers," Sharpe said.
Even people who normally don't gamble are inclined to do so during the World Cup. "Those unfamiliar with football often become converts for that month — like non-tennis fans become experts during Wimbledon," he said.
As in any sport, there are favorites, and longshots. In 2010, the three World Cup favorites are European champion Spain, five-time winner Brazil and England, all listed at around 6 to 1 or better to prevail in South Africa.
Second-tier favorites include former champions Argentina, France, Germany and Italy, as well as the Netherlands. Those teams' odds range from 5 to 1 to 17 to 1.
After that comes a large middle-of-the-pack group, decent teams without any real title prospects, followed by the longest of the long shots, namely Honduras, New Zealand and North Korea, at anywhere from 1,000 to 1 to 2,000 to 1.
Want to take a flutter on the United States winning it all? You can get odds of 67 to 1 from another British bookmaker, Ladbrokes, the same odds it gives Cameroon, Denmark, Ghana, Greece, Serbia and Uruguay.
Think Mexico can go the distance? Ladbrokes will offer you 81 to 1.
But there is no need to go all the way to London to get in on the action.
Soccer is big business for Las Vegas sports books, too, come World Cup time. "The U.S. interest, now that we're much more competitive than we have been in years past, is a big bonus," said Jay Rood, race and sports book director at the MGM/Mirage. "People from all over the world come here, and we have odds up and available already."
Those who venture into a casino unprepared are taking a risk, however. In the case of the World Cup, even a little knowledge goes a long way.
Would-be bettors should remember, for instance, that only seven countries have won the World Cup, that no European team has won the tournament when it is played outside Europe, and that no team from other than Europe or South America has ever won it.
They should also remember that only twice in the tournament's 80-year history has the defending champion repeated. Italy is the defending champion this time, having gone into the Germany 2006 World Cup at odds of 10 to 1.
Sharpe has a bit of advice for those taking a gamble on soccer's showcase event.
The longer shots, he said, "will have their moment of glory, but outsiders do not win World Cups …
"The U.S. has proved itself very difficult to beat and, in my opinion, had a great World Cup draw, being in a [first-round] group [with England, Slovenia and Algeria] from which they should easily advance and may well win. The downside is that they will be regarded as failures unless they make the quarterfinals at least."
American bettors have taken a fancy to the U.S. team, especially in wake of its stunning upset of Spain in the semifinals of last year's FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. The MGM/Mirage odds on the U.S. to win the World Cup are a low, low 8 to 1.
"That's based on our position of liability at this point," Rood said. "As we begin to take more wagers on the other countries, I would imagine that that would probably float back up into the 20 to 25 range.
"The U.S. should be the most popular team for a U.S. casino taking action, but actually right now England is the most popular in terms of sheer number of wagers made to win the World Cup, followed by the U.S."
In terms of fans, though, Mexico rules the Las Vegas roost, regardless of whether the odds being offered on it are 30 to 1, as at one casino, or 60 to 1, as at another.
"The most popular team in our area is the Mexican national team," said Jay Kornegay, race and sports book director at the Las Vegas Hilton. "We have a huge Latino population here in Las Vegas, and the casinos that show [Mexico's games] are jam-packed. It's literally like being in a stadium."
Jeff Sherman, assistant manager at the Hilton race and sport book, said that although some fans are willing to bet the longshots, tournament favorites draw the most money.
"Right now the most [money] we've been taking is on Brazil," he said. "We've got them down to 7 to 2. We had them at 5 to 1, but we've been seeing a lot of support for them, and it's driven their odds down."