By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News
With the start of the 2006 World Cup just hours away, the UK's bookmakers must be praying that England do not go all the way in Germany.
So close...but how far?
While English fans will be glued to their televisions over the coming weeks to cheer the team onto hopeful glory, the country's gambling firms will have to balance any such patriotism with reminders of their best commercial interests.
Put simply, England winning the tournament would be the worst possible financial result for the UK's bookmakers, who estimate they would lose an industry-wide £15m if the Three Lions really do roar this time around.
The stakes are high because the gambling industry predicts UK punters will place more bets on this year's World Cup than on any previous sporting event.
Industry giants such as William Hill and Ladbrokes agree that more than £1bn is likely to be gambled on the tournament by UK punters alone: five times the £200m figure for the 2002 World Cup.
As a point of comparison, UK punters placed £250m on this year's Grand National horse race.
With most bets by England fans due to be placed simply on the second favourites winning the tournament, you could forgive the bookmakers holding out hopes for one of the rank outsiders - such as the teams from favoured holiday destination Trinidad & Tobago or would-be nuclear giant Iran, to name just two.
'Numb the pain'
"Our biggest liability is definitely England," says Nick Weinberg, spokesman for Ladbrokes.
They had better still be smiling on 10 July
"Yet while England winning the World Cup would be far from the best result for the industry, deep down we are as patriotic as everyone else.
"And if we are going to get stung for £15m, it might as well be England winning the World Cup - it would numb the pain somewhat."
To help lessen the financial misery of a possible English victory for the bookmakers, Mr Weinberg confirmed that most gamblers in Scotland and Wales were choosing to bet on a team that doesn't actually appear on the tournament's roster: a lesser-known footballing nation called "Anyone But England".
WORLD CUP ODDS
1. Brazil - 9/4
2. England - 6/1
3. Italy - 8/1
4. Germany - 8/1
5. Argentina - 8/1
Traditionally, this pattern is mirrored in the Republic of Ireland, but Irish bookmaker Paddy Power said things were proving a bit different this time around.
"Our shops in the Republic of Ireland are telling us that the betting on England is a lot higher than usual," says Paddy Power spokesman Darren Haines.
"Normally it is anyone but England, but the English team is widely fancied this World Cup, so people in Ireland do seem to be betting with their heads rather than their hearts this time around. It's quite surprising."
Internet gambling growth
Paddy Power and Ladbrokes are agreed on the reasons for the huge rise in betting on the 2006 tournament.
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One important factor is the growth in online gambling, making it much easier for people to place a bet from home or their workplace.
Another is the general growth in the popularity of betting on football.
And a key difference from four years ago is that - whereas then bets stopped just before kick-off - now people can now bet on a game while it is taking place.
The lack of any significant time difference between the UK and this year's host nation Germany is also a boost for the bookies, meaning games are aired in the UK during the afternoon and evening.
During the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea, UK viewers had to get up early in the morning to catch the games.
And it seems betting is a more attractive proposition when the punters are not fighting sleep deficiency and desperate for a shot of caffeine or a slice of toast.
Peter Crouch's dance
And then there are novelty bets - a final driver in the surge in World Cup betting.
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This tournament, you can even place a wager on whether England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson will copy the comedy robotic celebration dance of striker Peter Crouch, or bet on how many streakers there will be.
You might expect the huge sums riding on the World Cup to be ringing alarm bells at organisations which caution against gambling addiction.
Yet this does not appear to be the case, as GamCare's chief executive Geoffrey Godbold explains.
"When you have events like the Grand National or the World Cup, for the majority of people it is their one flutter," he says.
"It is not going to be something that will permanently cause a problem.
"Instead it is a social, fun way of gambling, which is exactly what gambling should be about."
The UK's bookmakers may disagree, but Mr Godbold adds simply: "I hope England win."