Raheem Sterling put in a good performance. Photo: Getty
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England's impressive start to the World Cup: can they make it through the group of death?

Italy's star players prevailed, but Roy Hodgson's young team made a splash in their first game.

It is hard to remember England making a more impressive start in a major tournament, and hard also to feel other than encouraged by much of what we saw last night. From the moment that Raheem Sterling crashed his shot so narrowly wide in the opening minutes there was a feeling that this young side could achieve against the odds in their "group of death".

Italy are, however, experienced and tough competitors and it was the excellence of their star players that took them through. Hard, though, to disagree with Alan Shearer, who appears to have upped his game for the World Cup as a pundit in a way he never really did as a player, that Rooney's second-half miss was a crucial moment. "Wazza's" failure also to adapt to the defensive side of the role assigned to him left Baines regularly exposed down England's left flank. No doubt the press barons will give him no mercy, which is harsh since it was his superb cross that set up Sturridge's marvellous finish for England's quick-fire reply to Italy's well-worked opener. If there was scope for improvement in some aspects of the defensive performance, there was disappointment that our return from set pieces was minimal, whereas Italy threatened regularly from theirs.

So on to Thursday and Uruguay: the Suarez showdown. England's early contribution to this World Cup is so far impressive. Our young team have made a splash, Roy Hodgson demonstrates dignity and calm, looking perfectly at home at this level, keeping expectations to sensible proportions, and getting a real performance out of an inexperienced squad. On the political front Greg Dyke has emerged as a considerable figure on world football's administrative stage, a man of integrity leading Europe's challenge to Blatter's crass chicanery and deceit. In this respect we have taken the lead, and Germany with Beckenbauer, a sad disgraced figure, and Platini for UEFA and France compromised by his association with the Qatar bid have given us an unlikely starring role among Europe's superpowers.

Let us hope that our players have not given their best shot in defeat and the next two games give us an opportunity to make our presence felt at the highest and most important levels on the pitch. Come on England!

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war